In While I Was Gone, Sue Miller again addresses the issues related to sexual love, maternal love, marriage, identity, and morality that she introduced in her first novel, The Good Mother (1986), and later explored in Family Pictures (1990), For Love (1993), and The Distinguished Guest(1995). Throughout her works, Miller emphasizes her belief that life is made up of a series of difficult choices and that when one makes the wrong choice, one must face the consequences. However much she sympathizes with characters like the protagonist of The Good Mother, who is forced to choose between her lover and her children, Miller will not perpetuate the faith that pervades this permissive era, that one can have it all.
In the first chapter of While I Was Gone, which serves as the prologue to the narrative, Jo Becker admits that there was a time she believed that she was an exception to the rule. It seemed that she did indeed have everything. She was the wife of a minister who loved her enough to exempt her from the usual tasks of a minister’s wife, and she was the mother of three interesting if very different daughters, all of whom seemed to be proceeding satisfactorily into adulthood. Moreover, she found her career as a veterinarian fully as satisfying as her husband Daniel did his work in the ministry. However, Jo now remembers that for some time before her past came back to claim her, she had felt increasingly disconnected from her husband and from her whole comfortable but predictable world. Even though she had tried to dismiss her sense of detachment as a manifestation of the empty nest syndrome or, alternatively, as a phenomenon associated with middle age, Jo knew that it was casting a shadow on her life and diminishing what had been a very happy marriage.
After this introduction, Jo proceeds to relate her story. It begins with a telephone call in which the youngest Becker daughter, Sadie, informs her parents that the professor she most admires, Jean Bennett, is now living in Adams Mill. When Bennett brings an ailing dog, Arthur, to Jo’s office, Jo discovers that Jean’s husband, a prominent biochemist, is the same Eli Mayhew who was Jo’s housemate some thirty years before. In the four chapters that follow, Jo relives that time when, bored with life as a medical student’s wife, she fled to Cambridge, assumed a new identity, and moved into a house with six other young people. Jo became especially fond of the outgoing Dana Jablonski. When she was with Dana, Jo felt freer than she ever had before. However, for some reason, she did not admit her deceit about her identity even to Dana. It all ended on a cold day in January when Dana was found dead in the living room. The police were never able to identify the murderer, and the housemates dispersed. Jo summarizes what followed in the sixth chapter of the novel, how she went home, got a divorce, went back to school, met and married Daniel, settled down in Adams Mill, produced three daughters, and reared them successfully. She was much too busy to think much about that strange period when she had suddenly dropped out of sight and made herself into someone she was not. The chapter ends with Daniel’s sermon at a funeral service for a young mother, a sermon that aroused in Jo a sense of joy and of commitment to her husband that she had not experienced for a long time.
Up to this point, Miller has handled her narrative in a fairly conventional manner. She began in the present, related an episode from the recent past and then, when the encounter with Jean Bennett made further explanations necessary, proceeded to a straightforward, chronological account of what transpired thirty years in the past, events that, Jo hints, have since come back to haunt her. However, throughout the second major segment of the novel, which begins with Eli’s appearance at the beginning of the seventh chapter and concludes with Jo’s rejection of him at the end of the eleventh chapter, the author maintains not one, but two story lines, each representing one of the two lives between which Jo eventually must choose. One of the narratives focuses on Jo’s family, her work, and her activities within the community. Jo describes her preparations for Thanksgiving and Christmas, looks forward to having her daughters home for the holidays, worries about their tendency to quarrel when they are together, recalls incidents from their childhood, ponders their present personalities, and with obvious delight quotes some of Daniel’s more memorable witticisms. However, there is another narrative thread that runs through this...
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