I’ve settled into summer quite nicely, dear friends, and summer has been so kind to us this week. The weather has been picture perfect, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of being outdoors. I’m having breakfast with the birds this morning, here on the back porch, as they raise their chorus of avian anthems to the day. There’s room for you to join me – I’ve just put cinnamon rolls in the oven and a carafe of fresh coffee awaits. Welcome to the Sunday Salon.
I’ve been in re-read mode this week, and have just closed the last page on While I Was Gone, Sue Miller’s powerful novel of a woman at the mercy of her own restless spirit. Jo Becker, a 50 year old veterinarian, really seems to have it all. A solid marriage, three grown daughters, a fulfilling career – yet she can’t seem to escape this deep sense of restlessness that has dogged her throughout her life, a restlessness that sent her careening out of her first marriage some 30 years earlier, and into a commune in the city. Events that occurred during that time have haunted Jo ever since, and I don’t think even she had any idea how much until one of her roomates from that time enters her life again, totally unexpectedly, triggering a series of events that puts Jo’s life and marriage in peril.
Miller does so many things so well in this novel. She takes us into the heart of Jo, her domestic life, the secrets she has kept from her family and even from herself. As a woman of a similar age and stage of life, certainly I identifed with this character, with the sense of urgency that arises in mid life, when you “know what will happen next. And next, and next, and then last.” But I was angry with her too (I always seem to get angry with Miller’s characters, don’t I?) For her life seems to be all that and more, as the saying goes. Why isn’t it enough? What exactly was she searching for when Eli Mayhew, her former housemate, reappears in the middle of this life she has created?
The central dilemma is set up beautifully in the first two pages, on a “day in mid fall, well after the turning of the leaves.” Jo and Daniel are out fishing – or Daniel is fishing and Jo has “gone along, with a book to read.” It is a ritual, this day off together, this time on the water, “the only sounds the noises of the boat – the squeal of the oarlocks when my husband pulled on the oars, the almost inaudble creak of the wooden seat with his slight motion, and the the glip and liquid swirl of the oars through the water, and the sound of the boat rushing forward.” On this particular day, Jo suddenly has a moment when she becomes “suddenly aware of her state…sharply aware of all the aspects of life, and yet of feeling neither part of it nor truly separated from it. Somehow impartial, unatttached – an observed. Yet deeply sentient of it all. But to no apparent purpose.” And she recalls a feeling she had in adolescence, says “surely most of us can call it up,” this “burning impatience for the next thing to take shape, for whatever it is we are about to become and be to announce itself.” But now, she realizes, it’s “different.” Now, there was “no next thing.”
And because she feels stalled at this moment in her life, she becomes vulnerable to a situation, a person, a feeling, that promises an opportunity to make something happen. Yet this is not a novel of an ordinary mid-life crisis resulting in an affair. It could have been that, but it is so much more. For what Jo does is not really betrayal in the sense we commonly think of it. It is emotional betrayal, though, and Miller raises the question whether that is not just as damaging as the physical kind.
Something I love in Miller’s writing is the way she so carefully describes domestic life, the way she can endow the most humble moments with reverence.
Often Daniel and I had done the dogs’ walk together when the girls were still home, happy just to be alone with each other at the end of the long day, to escape from them and the phone and the duties of the house. We’d stumble through the dark, reviewing our separate days for one another, ignoring the dogs, who ran ahead or trailed behind. We’d walk past the stores, the fancy houses, looking in at other people’s live like strolling gods, commenting. We’d wander into the unlighted streets off the common that turned gradually into knotted paths, into fields. We’d walk slower and slower as we wound down, bumping into each other more, unmoored and dizzy in the dark. And then finally Daniel would say, “Well, we’d better head home and see if anyone’s alive.” Reluctantly, yet eagerly now, we’d whistle for the dogs in the soft night air and turn to start back.”
While You Were Gone is the kind of book that stands up to several readings, I think. It’s a deeply layered story, with many psychological overtones, a portrait of the inner workings of a marriage which reveals something new on each successive reading. It’s the kind of book you emerge from, blinking a bit in the bright light of your own reality, and wonder if you too might one day “come across the person who reminds you of your own capacity to surprise yourself…who reminds you that what seems to be -even about yourself – may not be.”