Reading guide for Lost In The Forest by Sue Miller

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Lost In The Forest

by Sue Miller

Lost In The Forest by Sue Miller X
Lost In The Forest by Sue Miller
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2005, 256 pages
    Jul 2006, 272 pages

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Sue Miller’s Lost in the Forest. We hope they will provide useful ways of thinking and talking about a new book from an author who has distinguished herself as one of our most widely celebrated writers about the truest, deepest undercurrents in family life.

Sue Miller’s powers have never been keener or more transfixing than they are in Lost in the Forest, a novel set in the vineyards of Northern California that tells the story of a young girl who, in the wake of a tragic accident, seeks solace in a damaging love affair with a much older man.

Eva, a divorced and happily remarried mother of three, runs a small bookstore in a town north of San Francisco. When her second husband, John, is killed in a car accident, her family’s fragile peace is once again overtaken by loss. Emily, the eldest, must grapple with newfound independence and responsibility. Theo, the youngest, can only begin to fathom his father’s death. But for Daisy, the middle child, John’s absence opens up a world of bewilderment, exposing her at the onset of adolescence to the chaos and instability that hover just beyond the safety of parental love. In her sorrow, Daisy embarks on a harrowing sexual odyssey, a journey that will cast her even farther out onto the harsh promontory of adulthood and lost hope.

With astonishing sensuality and immediacy, Lost in the Forest moves through the most intimate realms of domestic life, from grief and sex to adolescence and marriage. It is a stunning, kaleidoscopic evocation of a family in crisis, written with delicacy and masterful care.

  1. In the opening chapter, how does Miller set up the complex family relationship, as well as the ambivalent emotions that her main characters feel for one another? What do we learn about Eva, Mark, and John? What emotions does John’s death bring up for Mark?

  2. Readers get to know John only after his death, through the thoughts and memories of other characters. What kind of a man was he? Why, having lost John, does Eva find herself in a state of grief beyond her control, having feelings deeper than any she’s ever experienced?

  3. Is John a better father than Mark (215)? Why has John been able to connect with Daisy, a difficult child, so easily, and how did he earn her love (p. 51—56)? Does Daisy’s interest in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy” (pp. 121—23) indicate that she feels betrayed by Mark?

  4. John dies just as Daisy is entering adolescence and becoming acutely aware of sex (p. 57). Does Miller suggest that a strong connection exists between grief and sexual desire? What are the circumstances that make Daisy vulnerable to Duncan’s advances?

  5. What kind of a man is Duncan, and what perspective does the narrative take on him? How does the reader experience him? Why does Gracie not seem to know about the pedophilic aspect of Duncan’s character? When Gracie realizes that Duncan is having an affair, what is her response, and how does it differ from Eva’s response to Mark’s infidelity (pp. 208—10, pp. 41—43)?

  6. In what ways is Eva–to use the title of an earlier Miller novel–a “good mother”? How strong a character is she, and how vulnerable? What ideas and values guide her approach to mothering? Is there any way for her to help Daisy more than she does?

  7. Eva’s elder daughter Emily seems oddly untouched by the crisis her family goes through during the novel. Is this due to her age (she is about to go off to college), her beauty and self-confidence, or some other reason? Is it mainly a matter of timing or one of temperament that leads to the two stepdaughters’ very different reactions to John’s death?

  8. For a while, Daisy feels good about her affair with Duncan: “She felt he offered her a new version of herself, one she more and more carried with her into her real life. She felt uplifted, in a sense; she felt an elevation over the daily ugliness of high school. She was less afraid, less shy. . . . And she loved the strange sex, which asked so little of her” (p. 156). How is this relationship different from one that Daisy might have had with a boy her own age? Why is it more dangerous? Do the positive aspects of this affair offset the moral failing that it reveals in Duncan?

  9. Eva was drawn to John only slowly, “by the persistence and intelligence of his interest in her” (p. 78). How does this differ from her love for Mark? Is it surprising or disappointing that Eva chooses not to become involved with Mark again? Given the reader’s access to Mark’s thoughts about Eva, does Eva seem to be right or wrong in her belief that Mark is “unable to be faithful” (p. 137)?

  10. Comment on the narrative voice used in the novel: Does it give us equal access to the thoughts of all characters equally? Which characters do we get to know best? What adjectives best describe Miller’s prose style?

  11. Given the story told to Theo by the members of his family (pp. 30—33; pp. 231-32) and the way Daisy looks back on Mark’s role in ending her relationship with Duncan (pp. 242—45), discuss the various implications of the novel’s title. Which characters are “lost in the forest,” and how do they manage to find a way out?

  12. Sue Miller has said that in the most enduring fiction–like Tolstoy’s War and Peace–“you realize that everything comes back to the hearth. Yes, there was war, but the main focus was domestic: Who gathered around the hearth? Why were they there? What had they experienced? What stories did they tell?”* How does this idea work in Lost in the Forest? Is nurturing the idea of the hearth Eva’s most essential and valued role? What does Miller suggest about the nature of familial bonds in our changing society?

  13. How do the details of the Northern California setting establish the cultural landscape of the story? Are the rapid growth of the vineyard business and the changing nature of little towns like Saint Helena important to the story? What is the function of references to historical events, like the fatwah against Salman Rushdie and Noriega’s surrender in Panama (p.139, p. 206)? How does Miller handle the passage of time in the novel?

  14. Sue Miller’s protagonists have mainly been women, and her novels have mainly focused on women’s lives. When Eva gets older, “She’s wondering, perhaps, if her story makes sense, if it means anything, or amounts to anything” (p. 230). How does this novel address such questions, and what answers, if any, does it offer?

  15. Discuss the conversation that Mark has with Daisy when he realizes she’s been sleeping with Duncan (pp. 219-28). How does his suggestion that she come and live with him redeem his earlier failings as a father and husband? Why does he promise Daisy that he won’t tell Eva about Duncan?

  16. Years later, in therapy with Dr. Gerard, how does Daisy work through the aftermath and the personal meanings of her relationship with Duncan? How damaging has it been? At the end of the novel, how do Daisy’s thoughts about her role as Miranda in Shakespeare’s The Tempest reflect the person she has become (p. 239, p. 247)?

  17. Sue Miller has pointed out, “We live outside the world of religion yet with a diminishing awareness of its great importance.”* In Lost in the Forest, Eva realizes “that maybe some of her problem was that she didn’t believe in anything” (p. 76). As a self-consciously modern and intellectual parent, she has raised her children without the notion of God, yet throughout the novel she questions whether this has been a good decision. Does Eva’s belief in parties and celebrations constitute a sort of contemporary version of faith? Does Eva’s embrace of traditional religion at the end of the novel come as a surprise, or not (p. 234)?

* Quotes are taken from an interview with the author at

James Agee, A Death in the Family
Dorothy Allison, Bastard out of Carolina
Amy Bloom, Love Invents Us
A. S. Byatt, Little Black Book of Stories
Richard Ford, A Multitude of Sins
David Guterson, Our Lady of the Forest
Mary Karr, Cherry: A Memoir
Sharon Lamb, The Secret Lives of Girls
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Carol Shields, Unless
Alice Munro, Runaway
Anita Shreve, Light on Snow
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

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Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Ballantine Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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