I have mentioned before that returning to fiction from my five year stint in graduate school and academic writing has been a bit of a challenge. I flew through Stephen’s King’s On Writing because it was a nice mesh of analysis and narrative while reintroducing me to the world of fiction. The novels I have read in the last year have been more of a struggle as I try to remember exactly how to read fiction rather than academic text. But Sue Miller’s While I Was Gone hooked me in a way that I haven’t been hooked in years. I honestly couldn’t put the book down. And I honestly wasn’t that wild about the story.
While I Was Gone is told in first person by Jo Becker, a middle-aged veterinarian who is married to a pastor with three grown daughters. When an old acquaintance, Eli, returns to her life, her seemingly charming existence begins to fracture (well, Jo begins to let us in on the fractures that exist in her relationships with her husband and her daughters). Miller employs flashback to take us back to the 60s when Jo (who went by Alicia then) and Eli were living together with several other roommates, one of whom was murdered. Through her past memories and Jo’s inability to reconcile those events with her current life, she faces different tensions with Eli and with her husband, Daniel and how she ultimately sees herself.
- Jo Becker – While many reviewers have complained that Jo is self-indulgent and unlikeable, I found her to be a fascinating narrator. She is selfish and careless with the feelings and lives of those around her (particularly her first husband Ted, her current husband Daniel, and her daughters). But it is that selfishness and carelessness that creates the tension for the story, while allowing us as readers to analyze her actions and narration of events. In the reader’s guide at the back of the book, Miller admits she doesn’t even like Jo. But I don’t think that’s always the goal for every author and every story. Jo doesn’t have to be likable. She has to be believable. And she is. What’s fascinating is that Jo never really focuses on her husband or her daughters for long, compared to her old housemates and Eli. When she does focus on her current family or does interact with them, it’s brief and at arm’s length almost, like she’s avoiding the tension that exists in those relationships. That was a deliberate choice by Miller and a good one.
- Way with words – I’m often in awe of how authors use language to tell their story. For me, Miller’s strength lies in her description of the relationships between Jo and the other characters. There were several instances when I was taken aback and I had to mark the pages. For instance, when she describes Jo’s reasons for staying in an unhappy marriage to Ted, Miller writes:
“I was married, and so I couldn’t really go forward with my life as a single person, which I was pretending to be. And I didn’t want to be married. I knew that. But I could’t imagine divorce – the failure of that, the ending of that life. I was raised to keep at it, whatever it was. To work harder if it wasn’t going well,” I smiled. “Doggedness. Doggedness is what I was raised for.”
And then at the beginning of the novel when Jo describes her current life with Daniel:
“I felt suspended, waiting. Between all these worlds and part of none of them. But this isn’t want I really believe; I think the sensation came from somewhere within me. We feel this way sometimes in adolescence, too, surely most of us can call it up. But then there’s the burning impatience for the next thing to take shape, for whatever it is we are about to become and be to announce itself. This was different; there was, I supposed to next thing.”
Even with just those two paragraphs, Miller captures the inner turmoil of Jo and her disenchantment with the life she has (whether it was in the 60s with Ted or her current life with Daniel) and her pursuit of something more that she can never seem to grasp.
- Obvious plot – I won’t give spoilers, but I could see Eli’s role in the story from the beginning – both to Jo’s internal conflict and his position to bring the novel to climax. I didn’t want to be right and I kept hoping Miller would throw a wrench in my prediction, but she didn’t. I don’t like knowing how a book will turn out at the beginning. It feels lackluster at best. This was a huge turn off for me that it almost ruined the rest of Miller’s work. In addition to the big reveal, the wrap up of the story felt hurried. It felt like Miller was even bored with her own plot and just wanted to be done with it, which worked out well for me because I was ready to be done with it too.