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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review of WHILE I WAS GONE by Sue Miller

2 Stars
Had this book not been chosen by my book club, I would not have finished and would, in fact, have thrown it away.  I persevered but feel I wasted my time.

The protagonist and narrator is Jo Becker a middle-aged woman married to Daniel, a minister.  In her job as a veterinarian she reconnects with Eli Mayhew, an acquaintance from the 1960s when she lived in a commune-like house with him and several other young people until one of their housemates is murdered.  Her encounter with Eli has her revisiting the six months she lived in Cambridge under an assumed name after abandoning her first husband.  The narrative moves from past to present as she remembers the past and navigates her present life in which she flirts with escaping once again.

As I’ve already indicated, I found the novel boring.  Nothing of interest happens for the first 75 pages.  Whatever happened to beginning with something that will catch the reader’s attention near the beginning?  By this time, I’d developed an aversion to the protagonist and couldn’t care less about what happened to her.

Jo is totally unlikeable.  She is a self-centred whiner.  Her behaviour might be acceptable in a young person, but it is inappropriate in a middle-aged one.  She remembers herself as “egocentric . . . uncaring about the pain I might be causing others” (133); the problem is that she is exactly the same in her 50s.  She has never grown up.  She abandoned her first husband and caused grief both to him and her mother, yet because she is bored, she is ready to run away again and this time hurt even more people.

Because she wants to feel young again and to experience some excitement, she tiptoes towards an affair and risks throwing away her marriage.  She is envious of her daughter:  “I wanted to be standing at the center of my life in hot lights, moving in ecstasy to music . . . I wanted to be turning and dancing and laughing under the caressing waves of applause. . . . I wanted to be making love slowly and elaborately in the parked van in a dark city alley, listening to the hitched breathing of the others while they sat back and watched” (166).

To make matters worse, she has no idea what she wants.  One minute she admits, “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” (95).  Ten pages later, she says, “I hate this . . . I hate my life” (105). 

The book has been described as “exquisitely suspenseful” yet I found there is virtually no suspense.  Because of her self-indulgence and immaturity, it is entirely predictable that Jo will make stupid, reckless decisions and that others will suffer.  It is very obvious that she is not a good judge of character; her comments about her housemate Dana indicate that Jo is unable to recognize emotional instability in others (as well as herself), so it is inevitable that her opinions of others are not to be trusted. 

I read this novel while I was gone on a road trip; I wish I had not taken the book with me!  When I learned that it was a selection of Oprah’s Book Club, I should have quoted Shakespeare:  “Get thee gone!”