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Lost in the Forest

By Sue Miller

Alfred A. Knopf

256 pages, $24.95

From the book:
Daisy is a thief -- why doesn't it make her feel bad? Why doesn't it make her feel guilty? It just doesn't. The money that she took, that she's continued to take over the hot, dragging weeks of summer, feels somehow hers by right, as though it's making up for something done to her, some injury.

What a joy to lose yourself in a new work of fiction that not only has a good story but also some terrific writing.

In a Sue Miller novel, you won't read about nannies run amok or shopaholics on a binge. Instead, she offers complex characters who are neither angels nor demons, but in many ways both. Rather than relying on the gimmicks that mar much of today's fiction, Miller spins multilayered stories you can sink your literary teeth into.

Miller's last book was a memoir of her father's decline into Alzheimer's -- "The Story of My Father" -- which she wrote with a sensitivity and honesty that alternated between being comforting and horrifying.

She brings all that and more to her new work of fiction, "Lost in the Forest," which, as Miller's novels usually do, examines the complex nature of love, loss and family relationships.

Miller often places her stories on the East Coast (she lives in Boston, Mass.), but this time she writes in beautiful detail about the Napa Valley, America's premier wine region and home to characters.

"Lost in the Forest" lays out a complicated story, but delving into relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, life and death, is complicated business.

The novel opens with an emergency call to Mark by his daughter Emily, who asks him to come immediately to her mother's house.

Obviously, from her frantic words, something is horribly wrong, and Emily, her sister Daisy and their stepbrother Theo, are turning to Mark for shelter.

In between Emily's sobs, we learn of the death of their stepfather, killed that day as he, Theo, and his wife, Eva, walk down a street in the picturesque village of Calistoga, Calif.

Through Miller's graceful writing, we watch as the adults and children come to terms with a tragedy that will test them in many ways.

They were driving! How could (Eva) instruct (Theo) in what death meant, in the horrible enormity of his loss, when they were driving down this sunny highway with the acid yellow of the mustard bright between the rows of pale, greening vines? When she was thinking only seconds ago about whether she should swing into the supermarket for lettuce, a tomato?

Miller describes her characters' reactions to the tragic death in ways we all understand. Eva is consumed by grief, but tries to offer the children some sense of stability. Ex-husband Mark struggles with his feelings for Eva, but focuses on the children and their needs.

Oldest daughter Emily seems mature enough to face the death of her stepfather, and Theo is young enough to be emotionally spared. But it's 14-year-old Daisy who struggles.

The clues are there - Daisy's moods, her acting out, her lies - but absorbed by their own grief and guilt, the parents don't pick up on any of them, and the young girl starts down a dangerous path.

And then one afternoon in mid-October as she was walking down Oak Street on her complicated route home from school. ... She became aware of a car moving along parallel to her in the street, at her pace. She looked over. It was Duncan. He was steering with one hand, his body leaned across the front seat toward her. When she turned, he called her name, softly.

And so, Daisy begins an affair with a middle-aged man who is well aware of her sadness and vulnerability, and lures her with his offerings of not just sex, but more importantly for Daisy, attention and affection.

Miller's description of that first seduction is as graphic as anything I've seen her write, and is liable to make many readers uncomfortable.

Duncan is also the closest Miller comes to creating a character with little redeeming value - the reader has to look hard for a nugget of sympathy or understanding.

And yet it is Daisy's desperate relationship with Duncan, the husband of Eva's best friend, that is the catalyst for the family's movement toward healing.

A reader might wonder if Daisy's affair is a realistic device, but when you consider all the young girls growing up with little attention from their parents, and you see the craving for love in their eyes, then you know that Miller writes with absolute realism.

There are too many Daisys in this world, and certainly far too many Duncans.

Despite the sadness of it all, Miller offers some hope for Daisy and her parents by the end of the novel.

I've followed Miller's writing career as far back as "The Good Mother," and it is satisfying to see that she just gets better. She's not a literary celebrity like a Toni Morrison or a Stephen King, but that's just fine if it gives her the peace and quiet she needs to stay true to her craft.

Word by word, book by book, Miller gracefully hones her craft and give us stories that are so real, so true.

Susan LoTempio is the readership editor at The News.