The Barnes & Noble Review
The queen of the contemporary "domestic novel," Sue Miller has hundreds of thousands of loyal subjects who are so passionate about, say, The Good Mother or Inventing the Abbots, that they've been willing to overlook her recent missteps such as For Love. But no one need find forgiveness for Miller's latest novel, While I Was Gone, which is the author's best effort in years.
The story centers on Jo Becker, preacher's wife, mother, and veterinarian in a small town in western Massachusetts. Jo and her second husband, Daniel, have the kind of relationship only novelists seem able to construct: They each have their individual, satisfying work, they love and deal with their three grown daughters differently but equally, they even -- occasionally -- have surprisingly erotic sex in the study. Most important, they talk and talk and talk -- about their feelings, their doubts, even their ambivalence about each other. This is the kind of life, dear reader, in which you just know some hard rain is gonna fall.
The inclement weather in this case comes in the form of Eli Mayhew, a scientist who has just moved to town with his professor wife. Eli, Jo soon reveals, was a member of a communal Cambridge house in which she lived 20-plus years earlier. And although she and Eli had never been lovers, Eli had had an affair with Dana, another roommate (and Jo's best friend), who was mysteriously killed in the living room one winter night. Two decades later, Jo still thinks often of Dana and wonders about her murder; she experiences Eli's reappearance as something akin to premonition. On some level, she seems to know -- and to welcome -- the idea that Eli's presence and the revelations that come from their reconstituted relationship will nearly destroy the perfect life she's built.
Were Miller a more obvious writer, you'd assume that Jo and Eli would act on a dormant attraction, sleep together, and suffer the consequences of blatant infidelity. But Miller's story is more complicated, her Jo more reflective, and the result less clear-cut than what you'd get from a more average storyteller. In fact, whether Jo actually ever sleeps with Eli quickly becomes far less important than understanding why the seemingly perfect Jo would even entertain such a thought. Why would she risk everything? "Because she could," seems the best answer, and because Miller is so adept at scratching through the surface of contemporary, well-educated, politically correct life to find the emotional turbulence and ambivalence buried not that deep inside.
If you're a Miller fan prone to quibbling, you might note that the plot here hinges on a blurted admission from Jo, just as The Good Mother revolved around an unthinking confession from its heroine. Now, as then, you might wonder why the woman didn't just keep quiet -- or at least think things through pre-blurt. Also, there's something inherently unlikable about Jo, a woman who seems to Have It All Figured Out, so that when she engineers her own downfall we're almost glad. See? You can hear the neighbors meowing: She's really no smarter, no better off than the rest of us mere mortals lurching from one mistake to the next.
But that, for better and worse, is the essence of the Miller style: She creates holier-than-thou characters and then sets out to deflate them in our -- and their own -- eyes. She ruminates and ruminates, draws scene after scene after scene to convince you her people are like this (slow, careful, and thoughtful) only to make them soon behave like that. No one is knowable, Miller seems to be saying: not one's friends, not one's children, not one's partner, not one's parents, and of course, not one's self.
What are knowable, though, are the tiny myriad details of family life -- and no one knows them better than Sue Miller. About Jo's 20-something daughters taking their leave for a night on the town, for example, she writes: "They stepped forward and pressed their faces against the glass, smashing their noses flat and white, smearing their lips to one side, gooey monsters. Daniel feigned horror and quickly pulled the shade down again. We heard them laughing." Or, more poignantly: "Having children teaches you, I think, that love can survive your being despised in every aspect of yourself. That you need not collapse when the shriek comes: Don't you get it? I hate you!"
These are the kinds of wise observations we need and read Sue Miller for, and in this, her sixth novel, the beloved author doesn't disappoint. While I Was Gone works as a kind of talisman for domesticated baby boomers who fondly remember -- and want to revisit -- the secrets of their wild youths. More importantly, it's also a story about people who think they know themselves and the world, people (like us?) who for all their thoughtfulness don't have a clue as to what makes them the maddeningly contradictory individuals they are.
Read an Excerpt
IT'S ODD, I SUPPOSE, THAT WHEN I THINK BACK OVER that happened in that terrible time, one of my sharpest memories should be of some few moments the day before everything began. Seemingly unconnected to what followed, this memory is often one of the first things that comes to me when I call up those weeks, those months-the prelude, the long, beautiful, somber note I heard but chose to disregard.
This is it: silence between us. The only sounds the noises of the boat-the squeal of the oarlocks when my husband pulled on the oars, the almost inaudible creak of the wooden seat with his slight motion, and then the glip and liquid swirl of the oars through the water, and the sound of the boat rushing forward.
My husband's back was to me as I lay in the hard curve of the bow. He sat still a long time between each pull. The oars dripped and then slowly stopped dripping. Everything quieted. Sometimes he picked up his fishing rod and reeled it in a bit, pulling it one way or another. Sometimes he recast, standing high above me in the boat, the light line whipping wider and wider, whistling faintly in its looping arc across the sky before he let it go.
It was a day in mid-fall, well after the turning of the leaves. The weather was glorious. We always took one day a week off together, and if the weather was good, we often went fishing. Or my husband went fishing and I went along, usually with a book to read. Even when the girls were small and it was harder to arrange, we managed at least part of the day alone together. In those early years we sometimes made love in the boat when we were fishing, or in the woods-we had so little time and privacy at home.
It was a Monday. Theday off was always Monday, because Sunday was Daniel's busiest day at work and Saturday was mine. Monday was our day of rest. And what I recollect of that Monday, that fine fall day, is that for some long moments in the boat, I was suddenly aware of my state, in a way we aren't often. That is, I was abruptly and most intensely, sharply aware of all the aspects of life surrounding me, and yet of feeling neither part of it nor truly separated from it. Somehow impartial, unattached-an observer. Yet sentient of it all. Deeply sentient, in fact. But to no apparent purpose.
If I were trying to account for this feeling, I might say that it had something to do with the way I was half lying, half sitting on several pillows in the bow, the way the curving walls of the old rowboat framed a foreground for my view as they rose away from me. I saw them, these peeling wooden inner walls, and then my husband's familiar shape. Above him there was the flat, milky-blue sky and sometimes, when we were close enough to shore, the furred, nearly black line of the spruces and pines against it. In the air above us swallows darted-dark, quick silhouettes-and once a cedar waxwing moved smoothly through them. Layers of life above me. Below, I could hear the lap of the deep water through the walls of the boat.
As a result, let's say, I felt suspended, waiting. Between all these worlds and part of none of them.
But this isn't what 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, no next thing.
I had felt something like this every now and then in the last year or so, sometimes at work as I tightened a stitch or gave an injection: the awareness of having done this a thousand times before, of surely having a thousand times left to do it again. Of doing it well and thoroughly and neatly, as I liked to do things, and simultaneously of being at a great distance from my own actions.
Or at home, setting the table, sitting down with my husband to another meal, beginning our friendly evening conversation about the day-the house quiet around us, the old dogs dozing under the table or occasionally nuzzling our feet. A sense suddenly of being utterly present and also, simultaneously, far, far away.
Now I stirred, shifted my weight. My husband turned, no aspect of his face not dear to me. "Hurting?" he asked.
And with that, as quickly as it had come over me, the moment ended. I was back, solidly in time, exactly where we were. It was getting chilly. I had been lying in the wooden boat for several hours now, and even though I had the pillows under me, I was stiff. I had a bad hip. Replacement had been discussed, though everyone said I was young for it. I liked only that part of the problem, being too young for something.
"A little," I said.
"We'll head back."
"Are you sure?"
"I've got two reasonable ones. I'm a happy man." He began to reel his line in.
I turned and stretched. "How nice, to be a happy man," I said.
He looked over his shoulder at me, to get my tone. "It is nice," he said.
"And I meant it," I answered.
As we rowed back, as we drove home, I found myself wanting to tell my husband about my feeling, but then not knowing what to call it. The shadow of it lingered with me, but I didn't say anything to Daniel. He would hear it as a want, a need. He would feel called upon to offer comfort. Daniel is a minister, a preacher, a pastor. His business is the care of his flock, his medium is words-thrilling words, admonishing or consoling words. I knew he could console me, but consolation wasn't what I felt I wanted. And so we drove along in silence, too, and I looked out the window at the back roads that sometimes seemed utterly rural, part of the nineteenth century, and sometimes seemed abruptly the worst of contemporary suburban life: the sere, beautiful old fields carved up to accommodate the too-wide circular asphalt driveways, the too-grand fake-garrison-colonial houses.
We lived in the center of town, an old, old town-Adams Mills, the Adamses long dead, the mills long burned down. Our house was a simple square farmhouse, added on to repeatedly at the back of the first floor over the years, as was the custom then with these old New England homes. We had an unpainted barn behind it, and behind that was a small meadow which turned to pinewoods at the far edge, woods that hid our neighbors to the rear, though in the summer we could hear them fighting, calling each other things that used to make the girls laugh with joy. "You fat-ass pig!" they'd imitate. "You stupid shithead!"-which for some years they had, uncorrected, as "shiphead."
We used the barn as a garage now, and Daniel had his study out there, in a small heated room at the back. When we'd moved in, it was still full of rusting old tools and implements, the kinds of things people clean up and hang on their walls as folk art. There were still mason jars of unidentifiable fruits and vegetables in the old root cellar, a dark earthen space you entered by lifting a sort of trapdoor in the kitchen yard. Because of all this, we felt connected to the house's life as part of a farm.
Yet at the front of the house we were townsfolk, connected to the village. Our view was across the old common to the big Congregational church. Not Daniel's church, it's true, and we looked at its back side-its rump, the girls had called it-but it was a splendid civic vista nonetheless. Beyond the church, we could see the row of grand Georgian houses lined up face-to-face with its front.
Along one side of the green was an inn, where we could get a fancy and tasteless meal in the main dining room, or a beer and a good hamburger in the bar, with its large-screen TV always tuned to the sports network. Along the other side of the green there were shops: a small, expensive grocery, a video store, a store with high-quality kitsch-stoneware, cute gardening tools, stationery, rubber stamps, coffee-table books, Venetian-glass paperweights. Everything in town was clapboard, painted white with green or black trim. If you tried another color, the historical commission descended on you and made you very, very sorry you had.
We turned into our drive now and pulled up next to the horse chestnut that shaded the dooryard. It dropped its leaves early every year. They littered the yard now, and our feet made a crunching noise on them as we crossed to the back door. The nearly bare ancient branches, twisted blackly above us in the dusky light, made me think of winter. When we opened the door, the house was silent. Daniel began to put his gear away in the spare room off the hall, speaking loudly as he clattered around. "Boy, it is sure nice to have dogs! Dogs are so great, how they come running to greet you when you get home, how they make you feel like you count, even when you don't." This was a familiar riff, and as I headed to the john, I threw back my contribution: "Dogs! Dogs! Man's best friend!"
When I came out, a few minutes later, all three dogs had finally bestirred themselves from wherever they'd been nesting and were whacking their happy tails around the kitchen. Daniel was cleaning his fish at the sink-the smell already suffused the air-and there was hope of food for them. Nothing excited them more. They barely greeted me.
The answering machine was blinking. I turned it on. There were three messages, all for Daniel, which was the way it usually went, except when I was on call. I'm a veterinarian, and the crises among animals are less complex, more manageable, than those of humans-actually very much a part of my choice of profession.
Daniel had turned slightly from the counter to listen to the calls, and I watched his face as he took them in-one about relocating a confirmation class because of a scheduling conflict; one from Mortie, his assistant pastor, reporting on the worsening state of a dying parishioner Daniel was very fond of, a young mother with cancer; one from another minister, suggesting he and Daniel try to "pull something together" among their colleagues about some racial incidents in the three closely adjoining towns around us. Daniel's face was thin and sharp and intelligent, his eyes a pale gray-blue, his skin white and taut. I'd always loved looking at him. He registered everything quickly, transparently-with these calls first annoyance, then the sag of sorrow, then a nod of judicious agreement-but there was something finally self-contained about him too. I'd often thought this was what made him so good at what he did, that he held on to some part of himself through everything. That he could hear three calls like this and be utterly responsive to each of them, and then turn back and finish cleaning his trout. As he did now.
"Will you go and visit Amy?" I asked.
His plaid shirt pulled and puckered across his shoulder blades with his motion. His head was bent in concentration. "I don't know," he said without looking at me. "I'll call Mortie back and see when I'm done here."
I refilled the dogs' bowl with water and poured some more dry food for them. Daniel worked silently at the sink, his thoughts elsewhere. I went out the front door and got the mail from the box at the road. The air was getting chilly, darkness was gathering around the house. I turned on the living room lights and sat down. I sorted through the circulars, the bills, I threw away the junk. While I was working, I heard Daniel leave the kitchen, headed across the yard to his office in the barn to make his calls.
WITH THE CLOSING OF THE DOOR I FELT RELEASED FROM THE awareness of his sorrow that had held me in his orbit. I began to roam the house, with the dogs as my entourage, feeling restless, a feeling that seemed connected, somehow, to that moment in the boat, and maybe also to Daniel's sad news. I went up the steep, narrow stairs to the second floor, where the girls' rooms were.
All the doors were shut up there, and I opened them, standing in each doorway in turn. The sloped-ceiling rooms were deeply shadowed. Light from the hall fell in long rectangles on the old painted pine floors. In the older girls' rooms the beds were made, the junk was gone-boxed in the attic or thrown away forever. Only Sadie's room still spoke of her. One wall was completely covered with pictures she'd cut out of magazines. There were stark photos of dancers in radical poses, of nearly naked models in perfume or liquor ads, engaged in moments of stylized passion, there were romantic and soft-focus views of places she dreamed of going to-Cuzco, Venice, Zanzibar. There were guys: Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt. In the corner of the room where the ceiling sloped nearly to the floor, all the stuffed animals and dolls she'd ever owned were standing wide-eyed in rows by height, like some bizarre crowd in the bleachers at a high-school event.
I went into Cass's blank room and lay down across her bed. Maybe it was the girls I wanted. Maybe I just missed the comfort of their noise, of their smells and music and flesh.
From the Audio edition.