Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Book Review: While I was Gone

This is a story about two women: Jo Becker and Dana Jablonski. They meet in their twenties during the 1960s. Jo is running away from a marriage, while Dana is living the life of an artist. Jo lies to hide her past from her housemates, while Dana is ruthlessly honest, defending herself from gossip by letting everyone know intimate details of her life.

An expected narrative would be a conflict between the two women, their ways of living, and perhaps an examination of the consequences. Instead, the narrative is one of Jo Becker telling the story of her past to the reader in first person (the story begins when her three children are all adults and out of the house), all the while continuing to keep her secrets from her husband and even her daughters, to the point where they call her elusive.

Becker's otherwise boring life becomes suddenly more interesting when one of her housemates from the past 25 years moves into town and they renew a connection. Secrets become unveiled, and Becker's otherwise stalid life becomes in jeopardy.

Other editors and reviewers comment that the book is about how one must deal with secrets and be careful which you should choose to keep, so I need speak no more about it. The copy of the novel I read had an interview with Sue Miller in which she noted that Jo Becker, as a person who chooses to act rather than to reflect, had certain limitations that made her uninteresting to write or contemplate. That explains why the first few chapters of the book were so difficult to read --- they rang false on almost every note, as someone who's pre-inclined to action over contemplation is hardly likely to make such a narrative. I also note that Sue Miller chooses to use a scientist as a villain in this piece, and does so by buying into every stereotype of a lab-rat scientist. Perhaps being an artiste herself, the only person she could have fill the role would have to be someone thoroughly alien to her. This is the part of the novel that I noticed and did not really appreciate.

I read this novel as an airplane novel, and perhaps, that was the only way I could have read it --- when I was a captive audience. While it gave me quite a bit to think about, I can't say that I agree with either the premise of the story, or the means by which Sue Miller chooses to make it. It's not a waste of time, but I'm not sure it otherwise has much to recommend it.
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