Review: While I Was Gone

20 Books of Summer 2018: Book 6

This is the first book I’ve read by Sue Miller and I was impressed by her writing style and vibrant voice. Even the slower passages and asides are engaging. That said, there’s slow bit in the middle where I felt the narrator’s boredom a little too keenly and couldn’t resist skimming. I’ve quibbled over this before—how it feels wrong to criticize a book when it makes me feel the character’s mood so well—but there must be a line between comprehending the protagonist’s boredom and feeling bored. Boredom > being bored?

While I Was Gone begins with Jo experiencing a mid-life crisis and discussing it with her husband, Daniel:

“Here’s what it was. I was looking at myself in the mirror and I saw myself, and I don’t know how I got this way.” I made a dramatic gesture down my body. I wanted to amuse him. He had amused me.
He looked me up and down. “What way?”
“Older. Not young. Not what I once was.”
“Ah, but which of us is?” He grinned, a flash of dry pleasure.
“Of course. It’s silly. But just, from time to time, don’t you kind of get swept by it. By the sense of separation between the parts of life. Don’t you? Doesn’t the part that was crazy and doing drugs and having random sex in the sixties sometimes sit up and wonder what you’re doing here? Look at that,” I said. I pointed to the counter. “There’s a Cuisinart there. There’s a dishwasher. That’s indefensible.”
He laughed. And then he said, “People change, my Jo. That’s all you’re saying.”
“No it isn’t. I don’t think it is. What I’m saying is I don’t like this business of whole lives being taken from me.”
“Who’s taking? Who’s taking anything from you? ‘Whole lives.'” He made a face. “Too melodramatic. It’s just life.” (14)

Despite the apparent perfection of her life, Jo is afflicted with deep boredom and irritation toward her status quo. It’s hard to understand this at first, but flashbacks to her younger days reveal that she used to be wildly different. She ran out on her first husband to share a house with a bunch of free-spirits. In doing this, she lied about her name and background, which everyone could see through to varying degrees. There’s a sense that Jo forged real connections in the house, but when her idyllic side-life was rocked by a violent crime, she left it too.

Years later, one of Jo’s former housemates (Eli) re-enters her life via one of her daughter’s teachers. Where the book goes off the rails for me is in Jo’s sheer unlikability. She’s briefly attracted to Eli when reminiscing with him, but a Surprising Thing occurs before she gets round to cheating. When she tells Daniel about the Surprising Thing, he catches a detail in her story and blows up over her thinking of another man. Oh no, mild fantasizing! I’d minimize this less, but Daniel’s only known attribute is his endless patience. Before you think I’m awful, this comes up in the Reader’s Guide:

Q: And he gets so angry at her. Even though we know he’s going to forgive her, he really takes his time. As readers, we’re impatient with him: Get over it already!
SM: (Laughs.) Yeah, a lot of people feel that way. As Jo points out, she hasn’t actually done anything.

Readers know that Daniel is going to forgive Jo because the only qualities he has are things related to listening, understanding, mediation, and forgiveness (he’s a pastor). But maybe he’s not a thinly-written character. Maybe Jo’s just a worse wife than I initially thought and she can’t be bothered to describe her husband in three-dimensional terms.

This leads to the most difficult problem of reviewing this book: Is Daniel (and everyone else) a one-note character because Sue Miller wrote them poorly, or because Jo is so self-centered that she can’t see anyone but herself?

Sue Miller explains:

Q: And what about Daniel? Where is he in his life?
SM: It’s lots less clear, in part because Jo is the narrator and she doesn’t really think about Daniel all that much. At one point she’s talking about the series of near-flings she’s had, the times she’s been tempted sexually in her life before Eli, and she says, “I assume Daniel has had the same thing.” She is simply not that curious, so she doesn’t really know. For one thing, she’s very confident of his love. But she just hasn’t ever asked him. That, in a way, is symptomatic of what we can’t know about Daniel because the book is written in the first person. But he seems very content in his life and not to be undergoing the same kind of questioning that Jo is.

Strangely, the more I read the Reader’s Guide, the more I like Sue Miller’s writing process and the less I like the book. Although, I disagree that we can’t know Daniel simply because Jo is the narrator—it seems more that we can’t know Daniel because Jo doesn’t care enough. Ouch. Tough blow, Daniel! Jo’s thought crime is the least of his problems.

At the close, the balance between Jo’s marital woes and wrapping up the Surprising Thing feels off. The latter is far more interesting than the former and somehow both are closed in an unsatisfying way.

Overall: 4.0 (out of 5). I dislike Jo, which limits my ability to recommend this book. Jo’s character and voice (and lack of growth) is the book. If you don’t enjoy wading through her psyche, you won’t like the book.

Reviewed

  1. The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard
  2. The Eternal Wonder by Pearl S. Buck
  3. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
  4. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  5. Those Who Walk Away by Patricia Highsmith
  6. While I Was Gone by Sue Miller

Read (**off-list replacements, oops)

  1. Embers by Sándor Marái
  2. **Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah
  3. **The Lost World by Michael Crichton
  4. **Snap by Belinda Bauer
  5. **Stiff by Mary Roach
  6. **The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Need to Finish/Read

  1. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
  2. The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie, Jr.
  3. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  4. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  5. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
  6. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
  7. The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan
  8. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  9. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  10. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  11. Snow by Orhan Pamuk
  12. What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
  13. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

Note: Since I’ve read five books that weren’t on my list, five of the above will be bumped from the challenge-queue, but I’m not sure which…

One Comment on “Review: While I Was Gone

  1. Your boredom/boring comments remind me of TV characters meant to be annoying. It’s a fine line to making them annoying to the other characters, but not to the audience (me). When it’s done well, it’s brilliant. When it’s not, it’s unwatchable.

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