WHILE I WAS GONE

FICTION BY SUE MILLER

Ballantine Books
ISBN: 0-375-41178-X
Jo Becker remembers the moment quite clearly: the time when everything was unchanged, before she came to see a part of herself she thought was long gone. Someone from the past was about to appear, taking her back to a life that wasn’t quite her own. Questions arise from the depths of her soul, testing the foundation of her marriage, questioning her character and the life she has built.  
      Sue Miller is a writer who touches the heart of both her characters and readers. In While I Was Gone, the character Jo Becker has always traveled through life with secrets in her pockets. She is a woman whose place is constantly questioned by something internal that she can’t quite place. Jo Becker, a person of character, of color, is presented to the reader so clearly we can almost see the lines in her face and hear her laughter.  
      In the beginning of the novel, the pages are turned without the reader noticing. Fingers are quiet, the voice non-existent as the reader takes on Jo Becker’s pain, her inner turmoil, the path she must follow. The reader feels the bumps along the road, the uncertainty of each character’s decisions. The reader loses sight of his or her own life as Sue Miller makes Jo Becker’s a part of their own. The pages draw the reader in as Sue Miller earnestly relives the life of Jo Becker, her world in the big house on Lyman Street. She brings each character to the face of the reader; it is a chance to live side by side with them. Sue Miller carries her readers through the story with such exquisite detail that the experience is almost surreal. Floating on air, Ms. Miller takes the reader through the memories of Jo Becker’s life. The author does this so well that there are times when the reader feels nestled in the big house with Jo Becker, comfortable in the palm of the writer’s hand.  
      The story takes off running in the beginning. We lose our breath as we try to keep up, the excitement alive. Jo Becker — her false identity created out of desperation, out of boredom. Her fear of a life that she fears will never seem complete. The husband she left behind, the new people in her life that seem to define some part of herself. And then something horrible happens, something that Jo will never be able to erase from her memory.  
      Eli enters her life like lightning in a thunderstorm. Thoughts and feelings surface that Jo cannot hide nor escape, but there seems no outlet for such frivolity. Daniel is always there for everyone, so perfect, so right, so true. The comfort with Daniel is special; she knows that in the depths of her person. But she also recognizes the breath and life of another part of her. Jo sometimes becomes uncomfortable in her own skin, surprised by the life she has created for herself, even though she knew she’d always end up this way. She becomes jealous of her daughter Cass as she mourns the free spirit that was once alive and well. Eli brings with him excitement and the possibility of something more. She begins to feel utter confusion, contempt for her own life and family. Jo is no longer content with the life she and Daniel have created and the safety of a life full of predictability.  
      Sue Miller creates a story that the reader can take with him or her. She presents conflict in her characters’ lives to which most of us can relate. She opens the door to regret, reflection, and inner strength. She creates a novel that is illuminating but sometimes caught in the mechanics of writing. A consummate author, Ms. Miller gives the reader a part of herself, but a loss of speed makes one wonder if she lost faith in the story in the middle of her run. The detail is quite beautiful; Ms. Miller captures moments not often shown by other writers. But in the middle of the novel, the writing becomes somewhat lifeless; Ms. Miller inundates the reader with surface detail that does not touch the core of the story. Sometimes less is more. The reader fears the story won’t pick up again, as it grows somewhat mundane, stale, less alive than before. But then we come full-circle. The writing, the detail comes home once again; the ending brings light to where there was dimness. Sue Miller brings us around as in the Ferris Wheel bucket that reaches to the top to see.  
      Ms. Miller brings the novel to a just finish as Jo Becker begins to think of betrayal and is inclined to rock the boat of her serene life in Adam Mills. Her elusive and secretive nature come alive again as she considers risking it all to find the thing she believes she’s missing. But the past isn’t what it she thought it was. The truth comes to light and Jo Becker must decide what to do with it, though she is now agonized by self-examination and the pain she has caused others. While I Was Gone is a lesson to us all. Self-examination is such a part of the novel that the reader can’t help but join in. Sue Miller offers brutal honesty, the weight of responsibility, and the truth of who we really are.