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While I Was Gone ()

Westchester Women's Book Club

Okay, let's start by saying that Jo/Joey/Lish is perhaps the most dishonest narrator in the history of the novel (only Nabokov's Pale Fire seems to come close).  In fact, she's so dishonest that I believe that she is the murderer and the whole book is a con job.  She was in love with Eli, Dana was going to renew her relationship and so Jo killed her.  Now, years later, when Eli rejected her again, she decided to try and pin it on him.  That's the only theory I can come up with to salvage this novel. Otherwise, Jo is just so artificial and dishonest and so deserving of a horse whipping, that the book is irredeemable.

The dust jacket of the book actually claims the following:

    While I Was Gone is an exquisitely suspenseful novel about how quickly a marriage can be
    destroyed, how a good wife can find herself placing all she holds dear at risk.  In expert strokes,
    Sue Miller captures the precariousness of even the strongest ties, the ease with which we abandon
    each other, and our need to be forgiven.

Huh?  That's not the book that's contained within the jacket.  Jo is a horrible wife, mother, friend, daughter and person.  Her life is a stack of lies and she's an impulsive, thrill seeking cretin.  I don't know which was the most annoying moment in the book--the two bailouts in her first marriage, the initial dalliance with an employee, the attempt to cheat on Daniel with Eli or the horrifying moment when she announces her jealousy of her daughter's scrumping in the back of a van while the rest of the band watched.  Actually, I'm pretty sure that last one is the worst.

The level of sustained delusion that Jo achieves during her narrative has to make one question her sanity.  The saccharin 60's flashback to the Cambridge commune is especially, though unintentionally, hilarious.  Through the mists of memory she sees this as her golden moment, when she was free & in love with everyone & everything, but especially with Dana.  Who, by the way, she had never even told her real name or shared her true life story with.  I mean c'mon.

This is a book that cries for the tiger to be let out of the cage.  Someone, Daniel or Eli or Jo needed to just go gothic and start whacking people left and right.  As is, we have the ridiculous wrap up where the police decide not to look into this matter, Eli & Jo decide to coexist & Daniel comes crawling back like a whipped cur.

Finally, let me just say that I fear for a nation where it's treated as a great moral dilemma when someone has to decide whether to report that they have information about a murder.  (David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedar used this device too, only there the character could exonerate a suspect.)  Here's a little rule of thumb, if you considered someone a friend, you're sort of obligated to let the police know that you know who murdered her, okay?

Ms Miller seems to be particularly challenged by these rather simple moral questions.  As I recall, her book The Good Mother, depended on our sharing her sense of injustice that a Father tried regaining custody of his daughter merely because the mother's boyfriend engaged in questionable sexual behavior with her.  Hello?

Dorothy C. Judd review of While I Was Gone:

This book is an easy read which raises some important questions but it is a bit overdone. The book will engage you in a philosophical debate on your view of life: do you think you determine your own life?  Do you think you make choices?  And if so, do you take responsibility for those choices?

Jo, the main character, says, "I wanted to think of certain things Iíd done as being not really who I am." And so she removes herself from those things in a variety of ways, but always as if she were totally absent from herself, hence the title.  Miller was struggling with ideas for a new book the summer that OJ Simpson dominated national news and a Somerville teen who killed his neighbor dominated the Boston news. In each case, the accused staunchly maintained, in the face of all evidence, "I did not do this." Miller kept wondering, "How does someone disassociate oneself so completely from oneís behavior?"  And from this wondering emerged this book with its timely theme, ironic since the master of disassociation was yet be brought to the public's attention.

Jo is always looking for something more in life, and if what she has doesn't suit her, if she doesn't like what is happening in her life, she walks away and begins again. Many of us may have used the term, "I started a new chapter in my life," but we were also aware the chapters were all one book. Jo, on the other hand, seems to think that life comes equipped with a delete key! Donít like it?  Click; itís gone! Nor does she grow and change much by the end of the book, so she becomes an annoying character, one you would like to shake and advise, "Grow up!" Another character (nameless so as not to spoil the story) outdoes even Jo in denial.  One thing I've never figured out: do people such as this convince themselves of their innocence?  Convince themselves that their life happened in a different way?

Then there's poor old Daniel who is described as "good at what he did because he held on to some part of himself through everything."  Well, good for him, but why didn't he hold on to and use his communicating skills when he most needed them?"

When I was teaching, it was, of course, quite common for a child confronted with wrongdoing to either deny it or say, "So and so made me do it." This would engender the following lecture from me: "Sometimes it seems really scary to take responsibility for what you do.  But you know what?  It really gives you more power.  Because if someone else made you do it, you can't change them.  But if you admit you did it, you can change yourself. And that's powerful!" Jo, are you listening?

Grade: B

Orrin's response:

Aha!  I didn't realize that Miller had those cases in mind, but it makes me even more certain of my analysis.  Jo is clearly supposed to be OJ & this book is her version of his jailhouse ravings "I Want to Tell You" or whatever it was.  Jo is the killer.

Amy Reilly reviews While I Was Gone:

                        As for Sue Miller, I wasn't wild about it. My main problem was I never
                        bought the premise. Jo never seemed like the kind of person who would even
                        create "Lish" or her other wild, Cambridge 60s identity. She seemed like a
                        self-absorbed, weak willed shallow person when she was Lish, and also when
                        she was Jo. I didn't like her much in either incarnation. Another beef: the
                        whole crisis in her marriage was precipitated by something she never
                        actually did.  She didn't have an affair with Eli. She just wanted to
                        reassure herself that she was attractive enough to have the option. I'm
                        still not convinced she would have gone through with it had he not
                        confessed to Dana's murder.  Yet she was stupid enough to tell her stupid
                        husband all about it. (And why did she tell him about the intern who had
                        the hots for her, too??) I can't imagine this was all for the sake of
                        honesty, I think maybe it was her subconscious way of informing Daniel that
                        she was desirable to other men. It's all so selfish of her!!!!  It was not
                        noble of her to confess to Daniel, it was selfish. Like everything else she
                        did.  I am curious to see what the others in the group think about Jo's
                        confession: do you tell your husband about flirtations? When is a
                        flirtation harmless, and when are you "hurting" your spouse? I suppose
                        everyone has his/her own fine line.

                        And then there was Jo's reaction to Eli's confession. Can't believe she was
                        more disturbed that she'd almost slept with the guy who killed Dana, rather
                        than simply learning that this former friend was capable of murder. Really!
                        Imagine learning your college roommate had killed another of your
                        roommates. Forget the sleeping together part. Just the murder part is
                        enough of a shocker, and I felt Miller concentrated too much on the
                        marriage/betrayal stuff. Murder is a huge deal. I can't imagine actually
                        knowing someone who had killed another human being. Yet I can imagine
                        knowing people who fool around on their spouses, or almost do -- that's NOT
                        so unusual, at least not as unusual as knowing a murderer.

                        Somehow none of these characters rang true. Their motivations were off,
                        they didn't make sense, or their actions and reactions were inconsistent.
                        And I kept worrying about whether Cass was a)anorexic b)depressed and
                        c)using condoms. How pathetic of me. How very ancient of me.


Grade: (D)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Reading Group Guide (from Knopf)
    -READERS GUIDE : While I Was Gone by Sue Miller   (Book Browse)
    -Review (Jay Parini--New York Times)
    -Review (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt--New York Times)
    -Review (Salon Magazine)
    -Interview: Sue Miller: Tidying Up After the Wrinkling of Time (Lit Kit)
    -WRITERS ON WRITING Virtual Reality: The Perils of Seeking a Novelist's Facts in Her Fiction (SUE MILLER for NY Times)
    -Interview (Book Page)
    -The Transformational Rhetoric of Photography in Sue Miller's Family Pictures (Brenda 0. Daly)