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Sunday, May 04, 2008

The World Below (2001)

One of life’s simplest truths is that it does not always work out the way we planned it and, considering all the crossroads in life and the number of choices that have to be made along the way, that’s not really too surprising. But even knowing this about our own lives, most of us tend to assume that our parents and grandparents (and those who preceded them) followed a straight path from point A to point B and that they lived pretty much the lives they planned for themselves, even if only because they had no other choices.

Sue Miller’s The World Below reminds us that even those closest to us had their own dreams and that those dreams, especially if they did not come true, may be among the secrets that they choose, for whatever reasons, not to share with us.

Catherine Hubbard, fifty-two years old and twice divorced, is certainly not living the life she planned for herself. So when, after the death of their aunt, Catherine and her brother inherit their grandmother’s small Vermont house she decides to leave San Francisco to explore the possibility of creating a new life there for herself. She is disappointed to find that the house has been modernized to the extent that it barely resembles the home she so fondly remembers from the teenage years she spent there after her mother’s suicide but she tries to settle-in anyway.

While exploring the attic, Catherine is happy to find some of the old pieces that she remembers so well from her days living with her grandparents. But her luckiest find was an old trunk filled with clothing that her grandmother wore as a young woman because under the clothing were several volumes of her grandmother’s diary. As Catherine studied the books, and became familiar with her grandmother’s writing style, she started to read between the lines and gained a whole new appreciation for the woman with whom she had so much in common.

Catherine knew that Georgia, her grandmother, had been sent to a sanatorium as a teenager to be treated for tuberculosis but she would discover just how drastically that short period of time shaped the rest of her grandmother’s life. As she pieced together her grandmother’s “real” life, Catherine found herself reviewing her own life experiences as she tried to decide whether or not to make Vermont her new home: her mother’s suicide, her high school years in Vermont and her first boyfriend, her two husbands and her children.

The World Below explores exactly that, the world beneath the surface of the one Catherine assumed she already understood and, much as she was surprised on the day she spotted a sunken town beneath the surface of the lake she was fishing with her grandfather, the details she discovered about her grandmother were unexpected, but comforting. Sue Miller does a remarkable job alternating between the lives of Catherine and Georgia and creates two very different worlds in the process, one shaped by modern mores and attitudes, the other a very colorful rendering of the peculiar society that developed within the tubercular sanatoriums of the early twentieth century, a closed society in which those who feared they were doomed were eager to taste all that life had to offer before death came for them.

Ultimately, The World Below is the story of two strong women, each having to deal with what life throws at them, and doing it well. These women, survivors both, may not be happy with all of life’s “details” but neither of them is afraid of life.

We should all be so successful.

Rated at: 4.0

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