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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Book Review: While I Was Gone by Sue Miller

*warning, some spoilers. I usually try very hard not to spoil a book but this one is very hard to discuss without doing so.

Thank God book club is tonight. Because the minute I closed this book (in fact, a few pages from the end even), I was torn by a desperate desire to discuss this book in depth with someone! So many intriguing topics and issues she brings up. One that struck me as very profound is this: Jo has a happy life. Three young adult daughters more or less succeeding in the real world, a successful work life, a wonderful husband, happy marriage, cute dogs, adorable house. And yet, (or perhaps because of) she is not happy. Her whole life has been a striving. To figure out who she is, what she wants, what will make her happy, how to find it, is this the right man? What about this one? How to raise the children well? To open her own practice? Make a marriage work? And once she got everything squared away, instead of being content and happy, she is restless and discontented. And I worry - is that the fate we all end up with? J was telling me about his sister A who for years has struggled to go to work and maintain her household while also going to nursing school and juggling her schedule, and now that she's done with school and doesn't have two jobs and school anymore, she finds herself bored, at a loss, and feeling like she's supposed to be doing something she's forgotten. Do we all end up like that? Do people create chaos in our lives in order to feel alive? Feel like life is still moving forward? I feel like I am more of a Daniel kind of person, Jo's husband, and can be content with a quiet life with few bumps, but will I find myself with a Jo, who eventually will become unmoored by the monotony? Unemployed, many friends predicted I would be hair-pulling-out bored in a couple of weeks. Not only did I scoff, but I find it sad that they are so reliant on the outside to entertain them, that they can't even imagine how I could be perfectly happy months into my unscheduled vacation, and not chomping at the bit to go back to any job, just to get out of my house.

The author interview and the book club questions also talk a lot about the theme of confessions. About how the confessions impact both the confessor and the confessee. But I think that's superficial. The real theme is secrets. That's what really hurts people. Sadie uses that accusation with her mother like a knife, and it cuts her too. Jo keeps secrets from everyone. Her mother keeps secrets. And despite her daughters all saying they hate it, she's likely passed the secret-keeping down. Most notably in Cass, who most of the time no one knows where she even is. At the end of the book when Jo's visiting her mother, who makes her confession about Jo's father, Jo thinks to herself, "It seems we need someone to know us as we are - with all we have done - and forgive us. We need to tell. We need to be whole in someone's sight: Know this about me, and yet love me. Please.

"But it's too much to ask of other people! Too much. Daniel makes it easier on those around him: God is the one he asks to know him as he is, to see him whole and love him still. But for us others, it seems there must be a person to redeem us to ourselves. It isn't enough, apparently, to know oneself. To forgive oneself, in secret." (261)

Is this really what love is all about? Total honesty? I'm not sure I agree. After all, wasn't Jo burdened by Eli's confession? What was gained by her mother's confession? Didn't Jo hurt Daniel with her confession? I think that sometimes love is biting one's tongue and keeping things to yourself that will only hurt the other person. No, this isn't an excuse for lying or cheating or anything like that - in fact I'm mostly a scrupulously honest person. But I'm reminded of the scene at the end of Gone With the Wind when Melanie is dying and asks for Scarlett and the doctor tells Scarlett she must not confess anything to Melanie that will do nothing but hurt Melanie and assuage Scarlett's conscience. Often we tell ourselves that we are doing the other person a favor by confessing to them, but mostly we are only doing ourselves a favor and hurting them. I know Ms. Miller would disagree with me here. She goes out of her way to show that honesty is the only option and confession is good for the soul, but I think she goes a bit far at times. For instance, when Sadie is mad at her mother for not telling her that when she was young - long before Sadie was born - she had a friend who was killed. But that's not a secret. It's just something that hasn't come up. I know very few people who know much about their parents' lives before they came into them. Some broad brush strokes, sure. You know how your parents met and when, and the circumstances of their wedding. You might know one or two funny stories from an aunt or uncle from when your mother was a little girl. But is it reasonable to know what happened to a woman your mother knew briefly in her early 20s in another city? I don't think so. If my mother told me a story like this, I'd find it interesting, but it wouldn't even occur to me to be angry or to consider she was hiding something. I think Ms. Miller was stretching a bit far in that one detail to make her point.

However, that is a very minor quibble with an otherwise pretty perfect book. The slightly ominous foreshadowing at the beginning allows her to go through a long introduction and set up of the characters, and just as you're starting to think it's a pleasant book but nothing really happens - bam! Something very interesting happens with perfect timing. And then the repercussions play out, but it's not quite over even though life has gone on, and you know there's more to the story, and if you're not a dolt like me and read the author interview at the back when you're halfway through the book and spoil the second big surprise yourself, you'll get a second big surprise, with further repercussions, and it's a brilliantly plotted book. The characters are great - there's a lot of them but they're all pretty three dimensional and easy to keep track of. I especially liked the bickering between the sisters even as they are entering adulthood. I get a little frustrated with how most of pop culture insists once you turn 18, all sibling rivalry will just vanish and everyone suddenly will become best friends as that certainly isn't true. The passing of time and the seasons was so visceral, I missed New England a bit.

This book will stay with me for a long time I think. One of the best books I've read this year. I am SO looking forward to the discussion as I think it should be one of our best. Another fantastic book I never would have read if it weren't for book club!

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