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From Barnes & NobleThe 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.