John's Reviews > While I Was Gone

While I Was Gone by Sue Miller
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's review
Dec 28, 2011

really liked it

My only experience with this author was her excellent novel "The Good Mother" which I read 20 years ago. Don't waste time with the movie (unless you really love Diane Keaton, a vice that is not really wholly objectionable). The Good Mother was a poignant tale about a failed marriage, a reckless romance and a custody fight. Like the "Good Mother", "While I Was Gone" is a story told from a distinctly female sensitivity. My daughters had ridiculed me derisively a few months ago for reading "Chick Lit" - specifically the book "Eat, Pray, Love" - which I thoroughly enjoyed; hence, I couldn't give a whit about the gender of the author. "While I Was Gone" tells a story about a middle aged woman who confronts a rather shocking personage from her troubled young adulthood. She had impulsively abandoned her first husband, squandered college education and job to work as a waitress and live in a commune. She changed her name and literallly dropped out. I won't spoil the whole thing, but the book does recapture the carefree spirit of 1960's campus life, the hedonism, drugs, sex and communal living. The author waits until the second half of the book to roll out the "dark side" of this earlier life. Replace the spontaneous joy and ecstacy of Woodstock with the anarchy and violence of Altamont. That's where all the flowers have gone. The dark side resurfaces and disrupts the narrator's life quite unexpectedly, many years later after she has comfortably settled into suburbia.
If I may present a male point of view, I felt tremendous and overwhelming sympathy for the narrator's second husband. He is presented as a dutiful, loving spouse who adores his wife. Her subsequent deceits and betrayal devastate him. The narrator comes across as narcissistic, self-indulgent and careless. While she feels regret at betraying her husband adn tries to make amends, the husband elicited a lot of empathy. I applauded him as he turned a deaf ear on his wayward spouse and imposed the silent treatment. The interaction with their three college-age daughters also creates a foil for much of the narrative.
But this book really focuses on people reconciling past and present, wrestling with ancient demons and salvaging the best they can. An interesting ending that seems more plausible than the Hollywood scripted good guys win and justice prevails. The couple just goes on living. Like the rest of us.

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