While I Was Gone

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Overview

In the summer of 1968, Jo Becker ran out on the marriage and the life her parents wanted for her, and escaped -- for one beautiful, idyllic year -- into a life that was bohemian and romantic, living under an assumed name in a rambling group house in Cambridge. It was a time of limitless possibility, but it ended in a single instant when Jo returned home one night to find her best friend lying dead in a pool of blood on the living room floor. Now Jo has everything she's ever wanted: a veterinary practice she ...
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Overview

In the summer of 1968, Jo Becker ran out on the marriage and the life her parents wanted for her, and escaped -- for one beautiful, idyllic year -- into a life that was bohemian and romantic, living under an assumed name in a rambling group house in Cambridge. It was a time of limitless possibility, but it ended in a single instant when Jo returned home one night to find her best friend lying dead in a pool of blood on the living room floor. Now Jo has everything she's ever wanted: a veterinary practice she loves, a devoted husband, three grown daughters, a beautiful Massachusetts farmhouse. And if occasionally she feels a stranger to herself and wonders what happened to the freedom she once felt, or how she came to be the wife, mother, and doctor her neighbors know and trust -- if at times she feels as if her whole life is vanishing behind her as she's living it -- she need only look at her daughters or her husband, Daniel, to recall the satisfactions of family and community and marriage. But when an old housemate settles in her small town, the fabric of Jo's life begins to unravel: seduced again by the enticing possibility of another self and another life, she begins a dangerous flirtation that returns her to the darkest moment of her past and imperils all she loves.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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.

--Sara Nelson

Dan Cryer
This is gripping, close-to-the-bone fiction...It is the most acomplished novel in a career that began promisingly with The Good Mother and gained strength...For the narrator keeping part of herself secret has become central to her identity...While I Was Gone urges us to consider, very carefully, what's best told and what's best kept private.
— Newsday
Charles Gibson
A wonderful book.
Good Morning America
Jay Parini
From The Good Mother on, she has used her fiction to explore the artificially tamed emotional wilderness inhabited by husbands and wives...While I Was Gone continues this preoccupation...It swoops gracefully between the past and the present, between a woman's complex feelings about her husband and her equally complex fantasies — and fears — about another man...a beautiful and frightening book.
New York Times Book Review
Ann Prichard
Quietly gripping. —USA Today
Gail Caldwell
Riveting. —The Boston Globe
Gabriella Stern
Absorbing.
The Wall Street Journal
From The Critics
...[C]onfronts...the enormous gap between how we understand ourselves and how we are understood by others...
Library Journal
Thirty years after she discovers her best friend murdered, Jo Becker finds her now-happy life unraveling.
Sara Nelson
January 1999

The Good Wife

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 Abbotts, 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.

Sara Nelson, the former executive editor of The Book Report, is the book columnist for Glamour. She also contributes to Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, and Salon.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
[A] riveting new novel...The narrative pacing is masterly, building tension even in its most psychologically subtle passages. The story is so well made and vividly imagined...The scenes are emotionally textured...But most impressive is the complex portrait of the protagonist.
— The New York Times
Kim Hubbard
...[R]aises fascinating questions about identity and forgiveness...
— People Magazine
Alan Cheuse
A compelling sense of story.
Chicago Tribune
Lisa Schwarzbaum
Note to Betty Currie: Give this book to Bill Clinton. Or better yet, to his wife.
— Entertainment Weekly
Kirkus Reviews
Now, in a richly textured but emotionally cool novel, Miller (The Distinguished Guest) limns a fall from grace and the hard climb back to redemption as a woman tempted to take a timeout from her marriage almost destroys all the good things in her life.
From the Publisher
"Riveting . . . The narrative pacing is masterly, building tension even in the most psychologically subtle passages. . . . While I Was Gone celebrate[s] what is impulsive in human nature."
--CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT
   The New York Times

"MILLER WEAVES HER THEMES OF SECRECY, BETRAYAL AND FORGIVENESS INTO A NARRATIVE THAT SHINES."
--Time

"FASCINATING . . . A NEW NOVEL OF GREAT INTEGRITY AND POWER . . . Despite having a loving husband, three vivacious daughters, a beautiful home in rural Massachusetts, and satisfaction in her work, Jo Becker's mind is invaded by a persistent restlessness. Then, an old roommate reappears to bring back Jo's memories of her early 20s. . . . Her obsession with that period of her life and with the crime that concluded it eventually estrange Jo from everything she holds dear, causing her to tell lie after lie as she is pulled closer to this man from her past--and to a horrible secret."
--Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

"MARVELOUS . . . POIGNANT . . . POWERFUL."
--Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer

"A BEAUTIFUL AND FRIGHTENING BOOK . . . MANY READERS WILL FIND IT DIFFICULT TO FORGET. . . . It swoops gracefully between the past and the present, between a woman's complex feelings about her husband and her equally complex fantasies--and fears--about another man. . . . I can think of few contemporary novelists--John Updike and Frederick Buechner are two others--who write so well about the trials of faith."
--The New York Times Book Review

"QUIETLY GRIPPING . . . Jo shines steadily as the flawed and thoroughly modern heroine. As in her 1986 novel, The Good Mother, Miller shows how impulses can fracture the family."
--USA Today

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345420749
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/26/2002
  • Series: Oprah's Book Club Series
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 4.18 (w) x 6.84 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

Sue Miller is the bestselling author of The God Mother, Inventing the Abbotts, Family Pitctures, For Love, and The Distinguished Guest.  She lives in Boston.

Biography

Since her iconic first novel, The Good Mother in 1986, Sue Miller has distinguished herself as one of our most elegant and widely celebrated chroniclers of family life, with a singular gift for laying bare the interior lives of her characters.

While not strictly speaking autobiographical, Miller's fiction is, nonetheless, shaped by her experiences. Born into an academic and ecclesiastical family, she grew up in Chicago's Hyde Park and went to college at Harvard. She was married at 20 and held down a series of odd jobs until her son Ben was born in 1968. She separated from her first husband in 1971, subsequently divorced, and for 13 years was a single parent in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working in day care, taking in roomers, and writing whenever she could.

In these early years, Miller's productivity was directly proportional to her ability to win grants and fellowships. An endowment in 1979 allowed her to enroll in the Creative Writing Program at Boston University. A few of her stories were accepted for publication, and she began teaching in the Boston area. Two additional grants in the 1980s enabled her to concentrate on writing fulltime. Published in 1986, her first novel became an international bestseller.

Since then, success has followed success. Two of Miller's books (The Good Mother and Inventing the Abbots) have been made into feature films; her 1990 novel Family Pictures was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award; Oprah Winfrey selected While I Was Gone for her popular Book Club; and in 2004, a first foray into nonfiction -- the poignant, intensely personal memoir The Story of My Father -- was widely praised for its narrative eloquence and character dramatization.

Miller is a distinguished practitioner of "domestic fiction," a time-honored genre stretching back to Jane Austen, Henry James, and Leo Tolstoy and honed to perfection by such modern literary luminaries as John Updike, Flannery O'Connor, and Richard Ford. A careful observer of quotidian detail, she stretches her novels across the canvas of home and hearth, creating extraordinary stories out of the quiet intimacies of marriage, family, and friendship. In an article written for the New York Times "Writers on Writing" series, she explains: "For me everyday life in the hands of a fine writer seems ... charged with meaning. When I write, I want to bring a sense of that charge, that meaning, to what may fairly be called the domestic."

Good To Know

Here are some fascinating outtakes from our interview with Sue Miller:
  • "I come from a long line of clergy. My father was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian church, though as I grew up, he was primarily an academic at several seminaries -- the University of Chicago, and then Princeton. Both my grandfathers were also ministers, and their fathers too. It goes back farther than that in a more sporadic way."

  • "I spent a year working as a cocktail waitress in a seedy bar just outside New Haven, Connecticut. Think high heels, mesh tights, and the concentrated smell of nicotine. Think of the possible connections of this fact to the first fact, above."

  • "I like northern California, where we've had a second home we're selling -- it's just too far away from Boston. I've had a garden there that has been a delight to create, as the plants are so different from those in New England, which is where I've done most of my gardening. I had to read up on them. I studied Italian gardens too -- the weather is very Mediterranean. I like weeding -- it's almost a form of meditation."

  • "I like little children. I loved working in daycare and talking to kids, learning how they form their ideas about the world's workings -- always intriguing, often funny. I try to have little children in my life, always."

  • "I want to make time to take piano lessons again. I did it for a while as an adult and enjoyed it.

  • "I like to cook and to have people over. I love talking with people over good food and wine. Conversation -- it's one of life's deepest pleasures."
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      1. Hometown:
        Boston, Massachusetts
      1. Date of Birth:
        November 29, 1943
      2. Place of Birth:
        Chicago, Illinois
      1. Education:
        B.A., Radcliffe College, 1964; M.A.T., Wesleyan U., 1965; Ed.M., Harvard U., 1975; M.A. Boston U., 1980

    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.

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    Table of Contents

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    Interviews & Essays


    Before the live bn.com chat, Sue Miller agreed to answer some of our questions:

    Q: Where is your favorite place to write, and what do you see if you look out a window from there?

    A: We have a house in Vermont where my husband and I each have separate little work cabins, off in different directions. Mine is a tiny octagon with a little porch. From my windows I see up the hill past apple trees to the big house, and in the other direction, what's left of an old orchard and a pond -- and my dogs, puttering around the fields and chasing frogs.

    Q: In your new novel, the character Jo contemplates having an affair with an old friend, perhaps in an attempt to recapture her youth and redefine herself at midlife. What are your thoughts on the pressure on women today to stay young, and in what ways -- perhaps less destructive ones -- can they reinvigorate themselves?

    A: Ah! Interesting, in part because I had made notes to have Jo's husband, Daniel, accuse her of choosing the most boring, most clichéd way of resolving her anxieties at midlife (or slightly later), something that never made it into the book. But actually I think women and men are equally under pressure to stay young in our culture -- men simply have a slight advantage because their appearance as they age continues to be seen as attractive longer than women's does. But the feeling of doors closing, of newness unavailable, of surprise vanished, of the inevitability of some kinds of decline, and certainly death -- these are universal. And I'm afraid I don't see a universal way of, as you say, reinvigorating oneself. This is something each of us has to struggle with. Perhaps it's revealing that I will have moved twice in the last two years.

    Q: How would you define forgiveness, and how does one decide what is forgivable?

    A: The second part of that question stays unresolved in my novel -- and again, I think it's resolved individually, or along political lines, as with President Clinton. But I think forgiveness has to do with imagining yourself as potentially capable of whatever the sin or offense is; maybe, in a Christian sense, with truly seeing yourself as a sinner too.

    Q: What are three of your favorite books?

    A: The Children's Bach by Helen Garner [out of print], Swann by Carol Shields (except the last section, which I hate but for the very ending), and Mckay's Bees by Thomas McMahon [out of print].


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    Reading Group Guide

    1.         In the novel's first scene Jo describes the movement of her boat upon the waters: "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 wall of the boat." How does this reflect the book's epigraph? How do this passage, and the epigraph, work together to express the novel's themes? In what sense are the "trout" in the book's epigraph, and the "deep water" in this passage, metaphors for a universal experience? What do you think they are meant to represent, and how do they foreshadow the novel's events?

    2.         One of the notions Miller returns to throughout the novel is the fracturing of identity, and the disparity between past and future selves. On page 11 she notes, "The impossibility of accepting new versions of oneself that life kept offering. The impossibility of the old version's vanishing." What does she mean by this? How does this relate to Jo's experience in Cambridge? How does it contribute later to her attraction for Eli?

    3.         The first lie Jo tells about herself when she moves into the house on Lyman Street is her name--she calls herself Felicia Stead. Is this an important lie? What about the stories Jo makes up about her background? How did you feel about this section of the novel, and about Jo/Felicia during this period? Do you think the liberties she takes with these and other details about her previous life enable her to be more herself--more honest, in a way, because thisreinvention of herself is truer to her heart than the life and the identity she fled--or do they engage her in falsehoods and deceptions that undermine the possibility of truth, and of true friendship?

    4.         Discuss Jo's feelings after Daniel's sermon. She has not seen him since their disagreement the night before; yet as she leaves the church she feels "such a wild reckless joy and excitement that I wanted to yell, to dance under the pelting rain. Daniel! I wanted to shout . . . Daniel, my husband!" What's changed?

    5.         Discuss the sermon itself--in particular, this notion of "memory as a god-given gift." How do themes of memory and forgetfulness reverberate in the novel as a whole? What relationship, if any, does memory have to morality? How and on what levels do you think Jo was moved by Daniel's sermon? How were you moved by it as a reader?

    6.         After Eli's confession Jo has to make a series of difficult choices. She could have shielded Daniel from the knowledge that she had been prepared to commit adultery, but to do so she would also have had to shield Eli. Should she have turned Eli in to the authorities? Should she have confessed her romantic intentions with Eli to Daniel? What should Jo have done? What do you think the author believes Jo should have done? What would you have done?

    7.         After he confesses to the murder, Eli makes the argument that his scientific achievements counterbalance his crime. "I've worked the rest of my life to assure that who I am has some meaning, some value beyond this part of my past . . . And I have lived my life that way: making sure every day of its usefulness, of its meaning. I wrecked one life, yes. Dana's life . . . but I've given, I'm giving now, to thousands, to hundreds of thousands, of other lives." Has Eli redeemed himself? How is your response to this shaped by the fact that--financially, in stature, in his notion of his own self-worth, in the pleasure that he derives from it--Eli has benefited from this work? Can a person who has committed a murder ever be redeemed? What do you think the author believes, and why?

    8.         Long before Eli's confession to Jo, Eli and Jo meet for coffee and Jo makes a similar comment about her own guilt about having treated her first husband so poorly, and how her work has helped to ease her conscience: "It made me feel I'd earned my way back to a normal life." Is this legitimate? More legitimate than Eli's argument? Do you feel that either of them ever really has to face the consequences of their mistakes? Discuss the differences--and the similarities--between the ways in which the two have lived their lives.

    9.         After Jo's description of her second meeting with Daniel, she says, "We were married six weeks later, and I would say we have lived happily, if not ever after, at least enough of the time since. There are always compromises, of course, but they are at the heart of what it means to be married. They are, occasionally, everything." What does she mean by this? What kinds of compromises have she and Daniel made for each other? Discuss this in relation to the end of the novel. Look in particular at the scene where Daniel waits in the shadows for Jo to depart ("He's seen me in the car, and he's stopped there, waiting. He doesn't realize I've seen him. He doesn't want me to see him."), and the scene with Daniel and Jo at the airport ("I made myself register consciously the expression that had passed for a moment over his face as he moved forward to hold me: a sadness, a visible regret.")

    10.         When her children were young, Jo used to tell them bedtime stories about a character named Miraculotta. One night Cassie said to Jo, "I know who Miraculotta really is, Mom . . . she's you." Later, as an angry, disaffected fourteen-year-old, Cass's awe for her mother has changed to contempt: "You're so limited, " Jo recalls Cass telling her, and in response, Jo thinks, "Well yes, of course I am." What does Jo mean by this? Is she referring to herself specifically, or to all parents? What do you feel about Jo as a mother?

    11.         "Deliberately, playfully, I fed fantasies about Eli. I allowed them to become sexual, I gave them specific flesh. I imagined us in sundering, tearing passions in hotel rooms in Boston, in nondescript motels or inns in towns twenty or fifty miles away . . . It was all right to imagine this, I said to myself . . . as long as I understood it wasn't going to happen." Do fantasies have a morality? Is it all right to imagine, as long as we don't follow through? Are thoughts, in and of themselves, dangerous? Immoral?

    12.         What do you think of Daniel and Jo's marriage? Would Jo's betrayal of Daniel have been more profound if she'd actually had an affair with Eli? What do you think the author thinks, and why?

    13.         At the end of the novel, several people are confronted by revelations they find shocking about people they thought they knew: Sadie discovers the murder in her mother's past; Jo discovers that her father had a previous marriage; and Daniel, of course, discovers his wife's near infidelity. In her letter to Sadie, Jo writes, "Now there's a different message, I guess, something having to do with our inability to know or guess at the secret depths of another person." Later she makes reference to a similar feeling on Daniel's part--"the momentary possibility that he didn't know me at all"--and she recalls her mother's words after her mother's confession: "We're the same, aren't we? It hasn't changed us in your eyes to know this." Is it possible to ever really know another person? Should all secrets be told?

    14.         Using Jo's reflections after her mother's confession ("It seems we need someone to know us as we are--with all we have done--and forgive us . . . ") and, most particularly, her reflections in the novel's closing pages ("Perhaps it's best to live with the possibility that around any corner, at any time, may come the person who reminds you of your own capacity to surprise yourself, to put at risk everything that's dear to you. Who reminds you of the distances we have to bridge to begin to know anything about one another. Who reminds you that what seems to be--even about yourself--may not be. That like him, you need to be forgiven."), discuss the theme of forgiveness in the novel.

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    Customer Reviews

    Average Rating 3.5
    ( 88 )
    Rating Distribution

    5 Star

    (17)

    4 Star

    (39)

    3 Star

    (14)

    2 Star

    (7)

    1 Star

    (11)

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    See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 88 Customer Reviews
    • Anonymous

      Posted July 16, 2002

      Been There...Done That...Have the Scars to Prove It.

      This story truly reflects many honest feelings women in mid-life experience. It is almost too honest for most people to accept because it challenges many of our socially accepted norms of being a wife of a preacher, being a loving and self sacrificing mother, a professional Veterinarian, and a woman. This story could provide an escape for women to explore their feelings or reinforce how natural the feelings they may have concerning the normal aging process and self evaluation of their lives.

      1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    • Posted December 16, 2011

      Great Writing Style

      While the book entertains, I find the premise difficult to believe-- a woman so caught up in the past that she puts everything she loves at risk. The author's writing style, though, make this book a good read.

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    • Posted August 2, 2010

      more from this reviewer

      I didn't enjoy this book at all.

      Oh, Oprah. You selected two of my favorite books for your book club. (I Know This Much Is True and White Oleander)I thought that I trusted your recommendations, but after We Were The Mulvaneys and now this, I can't help but believe that your literary tastes are more bought by publishers than genuine. This was about a woman who runs into an old acquaintence, throwing her into memory about the death of a friend and secret. Anyone guess what the secret is? I bet you can. It was long. None of the characters are likable. Even the dead friend. The author is always describing her as lovable, but I just didn't believe that at all. The main character is selfish and the book ended, leaving me thinking, "What was the point of that?"

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    • Posted February 24, 2009

      more from this reviewer

      More accurately--3.5 stars

      The plot synopsis provided is accurate. As with the one other Sue Miller novel I've read, this book focuses intently on character development. I enjoyed the probing questions into the main character's (Jo) life and her search for meaning, her questioning of self.

      If you are looking for page-turning action, you won't find it here. However, do not let that diminsh what Miller has produced. Miller includes details of mundane life in a familiar way, which, I believe was her intention. The questions and motives Jo has for doing what she does are things I find myself wondering about also.

      Miller has produced another well written, thought-provoking novel with a couple steamy romantic moments that would make my mother blush. I give it a solid 3.5 stars.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted January 12, 2009

      I Also Recommend:

      Hard to put down

      I thoroughly enjoyed this book-all three times I read it. I love Sue Miller's writing style, her character development, and the whole story was incredibly intriguing. <BR/><BR/>Highly recommended.<BR/><BR/>Our book club read it and we had a great discussion.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted March 22, 2006

      Dark and meaty

      This is a dark read. The life of the main character is one that I view as tolerable not happy, yet not unhappy. It seems as if she always is hunting for something more.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted February 16, 2006

      An Avid Reader

      I thought this book was very thought provoking and one of my favorite excerpts from a book is Daniel's sermon. I would highly recommend it for book clubs. I have read all of Sue Miller's books and this is my favorite.

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    • Anonymous

      Posted June 22, 2005

      A waste of time

      This book has been a difficult read from the very first page. I purchased it because it was an Oprah selection and the premise of the story sounded great. I gave it a good try, up to page 91, and could not go on. What 'little' I learned about the characters, the less I liked the book. It dragged on and on without a purpose. I finally threw in the towel.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted November 7, 2004

      Good...just plain good.

      I really liked the main character, Jo. She wasn't perfect, in fact quite flawed...and therefor real. I related to some of her thoughts (maybe not actions). She was a joy to spend this time with on this journey through the novel. Give it a chance, I think you'll like Sue Miller's writing.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted November 4, 2004

      LACK OF SUBSTANCE

      It's not that this book was terrible, actually the story line was pretty good, but it was slow and boring. Nothing happened. The characters were not developed very well. I felt like I was reading about a group of people I could really care less about. This plot really has some potential but Miller never found it unfortunately.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted October 12, 2004

      boring

      To call this book boring is an understatemnet. I thought the book dragged so slow and was absolutely terrible. It just droned on and on. One of the worst books I have ever read. When I start to read something I finish it. This one was hard about halfway through the book I wanted to throw it in the trash. Hated it to say the least!!!!!!

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    • Anonymous

      Posted August 12, 2004

      She had me hooked-

      Sue Miller's style is first-person, modern and anecdotal. Her tangents were very engaging and developed the characters and story line over several time periods. The plot was intriguing and I'd definitely read more of her books, given the opportunity.

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    • Anonymous

      Posted June 17, 2004

      We can learn something new every day ...

      I read a review from someone who thought 'women in their 50s/60s would probably like' this book. I am there, and I did like the book, but I didn't like the decisions that Jo was making. It was as if she were going through a second adolescence, and had learned nothing from living and raising her children. The several pages where her husband delivered a eulogy were incredibly powerful. I have actually given copies to friends of mine who lost someone dear, simply for that eulogy, to help them deal with the pain.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted December 18, 2003

      A woman's imperfections

      While I truly enjoyed this book, the one thing that prevented me from putting it down was the incredible distaste I felt for the selfish, self-absorbed Jo. I have never disliked a character so much, which is a testament to Sue Miller's incredible talent as a storyteller. I highly recommend this to all who, in some cases, are opposed to 'happily ever after'.

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    • Anonymous

      Posted May 3, 2003

      I would like to finish it

      I strated to read this book, because I had to. But the thing is that I have only some paragraphs of it. So now I want to buy it, because the scenary seemed just perfect. I would like to now what it going to happen...

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    • Anonymous

      Posted November 18, 2002

      thrilling nonstop action

      this book was amazing. it had parts i never expected to read. i truly thought it was great. its about thuth and what a woman stands for. we all struggle every now and then between true love and a feeling thats unexplainable, and the main character, jo, was great. she was so realistic and brought all the truth of the book together.

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    • Anonymous

      Posted January 1, 2003

      I couldn't wait to finish this book...so I could start reading something more enjoyable!

      I was very disappointed in this book, it moved along so SLOW. If i had to discribe this book in one word, it would be "boring"!

      0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted December 7, 2002

      Great writing techniques, but rather slow-moving plot

      Sue Miller is truly a great writer in her writing methods of describing and detail. However, the plot was a little thin. A lot of it was predictable, and Miller is maybe just a tad bit meticulous, but all-in-all...not bad. It was worth reading, but probably could have been edited for content. I'm only in my mid-20s, so I can see how some women in their 50s/60s or so would enjoy this more than I did for the fact that they could relate to Jo more than I. I wasn't real fond of any of the characters in particular and thought Jo made WAY too many wrong decisions. I guess it's worth reading if you've got some extra time on your hands. If not, find something a little more thrilling - pssst...especially if you're younger.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted September 11, 2002

      Very Good

      I don't understand why some people are saying they didn't like Jo. I thought she was a wonderfully honest person. Maybe she did a crazy thing or two, but don't we all? I liked this book and I'm glad to have read it.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted December 24, 2001

      Too much hype

      I expected much more when I chose to borrow (not buy thank goodness) this book. I thought an Oprah pick would mean a fast paced, can't put it down, kinda book. I was wrong. I was into it in the begining, I skipped the middle part, and now I'm trying to finish the rest just to say I finished it. I dislike Jo's character and it was quite predictable. Too slow. And I can't wait till I return it back.

      Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
    See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 88 Customer Reviews

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