While I Was Gone by Sue Miller

Ballantine Books (May 12, 2000), 304 pages

This book, I got when we stopped over to have lunch at Cooma, driving from Jindabyne to Canberra. I couldn’t resist a quaint old second hand bookshop bargain. This book is packaged and presented as a thriller novel. Raves such as ‘…a beautiful and frightening book, one that many readers will find difficult to forget’ and ‘Gripping, close to the bone fiction’ are printed all over the front and back covers. With this, I started reading with the expectations of a good scare.

However, as the story unfolded, I found myself breezing through the pages, hoping that the next page or chapter would finally be ‘scary’. So its not at all something ‘thrilling.’

Pace of the book is moderately dragging, picking up only ¾ of the way. I finished the book feeling initially disappointed because it did not deliver its promise of being frightening (now I know to take raves with a grain of salt). Maybe it Was scary, but I grew up on R.L Stine and Christopher Pike novels so nothing is too gory for me. But on hindsight, the book overall conveyed excellent values that we can get from our life’s crises.

In the 1960’s, Jo Becker found herself in a suffocating situation. She married early as a result of ‘living together’ being considered outlandish at that time. The marriage wasn’t working out, (good husband, good wife– they were just too young)  and soon she felt the immediate need to flee. She ran away from her husband and her family and took the bus to Cambridge, Mass.

There, simply because she didn’t want anyone to trace her, she changed her name and stayed in a college house together with 5 other people. All these people had different characters, but overall they were nice. Especially one of the 2 girls, Dana, who took an immediate liking to Jo. Soon, Dana and Jo had a special friendship, although it seemed a little one sided, because Dana was open and lighthearted and adored Jo, but Jo, (then going by the name Felicia), was quite wary and didn’t divulge much of her past because she just didn’t want to be traced by her family or husband, as she was enjoying her new life. For the next several months, life was good to Jo. She waited tables at the nearby bar while her housemates were trying to finish their majors. Then one day, Dana was found brutally murdered inside their house. That was the end of their happy days, and after a number of investigations with no leads, the case was closed.

Life goes on and the book starts 30 years after the ‘roaring 60’s incident’. Jo has remarried—happily, to a preacher, Daniel, and has 3 grown daughters. She has been practicing veterinary medicine in their quiet little town of Adams Mills. Then a couple moves in to town, and she was delightfully surprised to know that the newcomer is Eli Mayhew, one of the housemates she had.

After several rendezvous (almost leading to an affair) with Eli, he one day confesses that he murdered Dana. Jo tells her husband this, and it rocks their marriage (for she also confessed to the attraction) and she decides to involve the police. Jo’s charges weren’t that strong, especially since she cannot present any evidence against a crime that happened almost 30 years ago. When the police questioned Eli, he denied ever confessing the murder, and turned the story against her. (That Jo only turned him over because she was humiliated when He did not respond to Her sexual advances). In no time, the case was closed again, and after a rough patch, Jo’s marriage with Daniel heals and she learns to move on, once again with life.

                                                               

A non-climatic plot but I appreciate the realness and consistency Sue Miller gives her characters. Jo, for example, has always been elusive, and unconsciously unable to form any extremely close relationships with anyone—not even her daughters. She is a bit of an escapist, learning early on that she can run away from her problems (as she did with her first marriage), and throughout the story, when she is faced with an issue, running away often crosses her mind. She is also perfectly human, being bored with her marriage with the town pastor, hence when Eli first came into town, she indulged herself with a few fantasies of “what if’s”, but never actively acted on it. She also wasn’t your typical pastor’s wife. She was not at all religious, didn’t go to church,  and did not meddle with her husband’s affairs. The husband, though a pastor, wasn’t spared from getting hurt and jealous, when Jo confessed that prior to Eli disclosing that he is a murderer, she was actually attracted to him. He was cold to her for weeks, and when Jo’s mother had a minor accident, he suggested that Jo’s going to her mother’s house would do them a good break. Their 3 daughters, they all had different characters, each of them charming in their own ways, and also gave headaches in their own separate ways.

 

One of the story’s focus, is change—the adage is true, its never too late to change. We may be affected by our past and mistakes, but we are not defined by them. From time to time, in life, we need drastic changes to get us out of a depressing situation (Jo’s running away from 1st marriage). And no matter how “used to” we think we are with ourselves, we will never truly know our being unless we have been subject to certain circumstances. And that to move on, we must first forgive and accept ourselves as what we truly are.

 

The last paragraph of this book summarized it really beautifully:

 

“My wish that they (Eli and his wife) move away will, apparently, not be granted.

But perhaps this is all to the good. Perhaps its 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.

I tell myself its all to the good, anyway. Still, when I see him, I always turn away, as if I don’t recognize him. As if I don’t know who he is. And so far, he does too.”

 

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