While I was Gone, by Sue Miller, was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, but that’s not the reason I read it. The novel was also used as an example in The Fire in Fiction, by Donald Maass, meaning it’s on my list since I plan to read every book he mentioned.
This book is literary–classically so. This means that the source of the tension on page 1 isn’t fully referred to again until page 213 of a 266-page novel. Sue’s opening line is the only clue anything “tense” is going to happen:
It’s odd, I suppose, that when I think back over all that happened in that terrible time, one of my sharpest memories should be of some few moments the day before everything began.
The story, aimed at women my age, engages the mind and emotions, but not the adrenal glands. It’s about a woman whose past life, shattered by a murder, creeps into the present normalcy of her everyday life.
Through her memories, both recent and distant past, Jo Becker contrasts the different periods of her life. Her time of “innocence,” during which she lived with various drug-using bohemians–more as an observer than a participant–is markedly different from her current life as a wife of a minister, a mother of adult children, and a veterinarian.
When her best friend in her previous life was murdered, that era ended . . . or so she thought.
A man from her past, almost invisible in her recollections, enters into her life at a time when the day-in, day-out activities were becoming a drudge, and she allows herself to entertain thoughts of an affair, with disastrous results.
The artistry of this book is difficult to capture, something I didn’t realize until I started to write this post. Its layers are deep and intricate. As a writer, to study Miller’s characterization (which is why Maass included her in his book) is to study a fictitious woman created by a master. Jo Becker changes, but doesn’t; grows, but not quite. One part of her is consistent throughout the entire novel, and that part is what threatens to destroy her life.
What surprises me though, is that in spite of some rough language and fairly explicit scenes, this novel is ultimately a Christian story, and I wonder if Miller intended it. Jo entertained a sinful thought, and because of it her marriage was endangered; her minister husband forgave her–not quickly, not easily, but in a credible struggle with pain and hesitance to obey God’s command.
Very few Christian authors can weave a story of sin and forgiveness as beautifully and subtly as Sue Miller did.
Even so, I can’t recommend this book for everyone. If you like fast-paced action, this book isn’t for you. If you’re easily offended by language and sexual scenes, this book isn’t for you. But if you like a book that comes out of nowhere and haunts your thoughts, read While I was Gone.