Lately I’ve been catching up on novels I missed when they first came out: the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, a writer of enormous scope and power whom I’d never heard of before–if you like sci-fi, these books are a must; Divining Women by Kay Gibbons, the North Carolina writer, an eloquent and skillful brief for women’s liberation, Southern style; and, the novel that made the deepest impact, While I Was Gone by Sue Miller, her sixth, published in 1999, an Oprah Book Club Selection which received excellent reviews, and far outstrips the book for which she’s best known, The Good Mother.
The plotting is so artful you can’t stop reading—if I hadn’t forced myself to put it down I’d have gotten no sleep last night. The characters are recognizable on sight and easy to identify with—Miller is a realist, that’s her stock in trade. The writing style is to die for–if the plot hadn’t hooked me, the language would have—supple, lucid, and precise with a sense of sound and rhythm that makes it a constant pleasure. But outweighing all these features are the novel’s psychological and moral acuity and the moment to moment texture of its scenes.
Set in a small town in western Massachusetts, the story centers on the marriage between a minister and the protagonist, Jo Becker, a veterinarian. It’s from Jo’s perspective that we experience the story. Miller knows to the marrow of her bones what it feels like to be going through one’s life at any given moment: the moment of awakening in the morning, the moment when one first steps outside. You walk in her main character’s shoes. When she arrives at work, you feel her satisfaction in the bodily presence of the dogs, her absorption in the immediate demands of the workday. But Miller’s greatest aptitude is for depicting the volatile, conflicted inner life. She is a master of the ambiguous situation, of fraught communication between intimates, moments of doubt and indecision, and most of all how it feels to be haunted by guilt.
In the most natural way in the world, Jo Becker manages to get herself into morally questionable predicaments. As a young woman married to a medical student, realizing she’s not living the life she wants, she leaves her husband with no warning, moves to Cambridge, Mass., takes on a new identity, and supports herself waiting tables. It’s the sixties, and her housemates are living out the dream of free love, political protest, and experimentation with drugs.
I was sometimes miserable, often bitterly lonely with the distance my situation imposed. At the same time I was happier than I’d ever been. I felt I’d come to see and understand, finally, that there was a way to live among others that didn’t require falsifying yourself.
Jo had grown up learning to please others, learning to satisfy expectations.
It was only as I began to startle and disappoint others that I was aware of myself at all—that I came to understand, slowly, that I wasn’t who I had pretended to be. And now, when I was pretending to be someone completely other than myself, I felt, for the first time, at home in my skin.
To be seen and known for who she really is, is Jo’s most basic desire and it leads her to tell her second husband, the minister, whom she loves and has raised her children with, something he cannot forgive her for, something which involves the age-old conflict between satisfying one’s impulses and carrying out one’s responsibilities. For Jo, there’s no clear solution. And this seems to be Miller’s point. Because human nature is fallible, we are inevitably caught in dilemmas from which there is no obvious way out. We have to live with the problem and slowly, painstakingly, one step at a time, do what our deepest commitments require, no matter how risky the action or painful the result.
The payoff for the reader, besides the insights into human nature the story provides, is the beauty of the depiction. Miller bears witness to our pleasures and frailties with infinite grace and fidelity, telling us the truth about ourselves in a way that makes the pain of that truth almost bearable.~
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