While I Was Gone by Sue Miller
You know those books that sit on your shelf for years, for various reasons left unchosen each time you pick out your next read, until the by-now overly familiar spine makes all the potential magic inside seem almost too tired to even bother with?
That's one of my favorite things about books... how you never really know what's inside until you actually start reading. Take Sue Miller's late-1990s novel about an inexplicably (even to herself) restless middle-aged woman, While I Was Gone. I bought this, used, at a school fair probably six years ago, and only picked it up earlier this month. Now, this is definitely not a masterpiece or anything—the central plot conceit is asking too much of us, I think (and, frankly, lets our heroine off the hook at little too neatly); and for all the time Miller spends on the daughters, they remained vague and largely irrelevant through to the end—but I must say I've made my way through dozens of books I enjoyed far less during the time this has sat there on my shelf, patiently waiting.
Our narrator here is Jo Becker: early 50s, fun, fit and pretty; successful veterinarian; nice house in rural Massachusetts; three basically happy grown-up daughters; a good-looking, decent, loving husband. And yet.... when an old roommate re-enters her life—a man who knew her back in the late 1960s, a time when she learned so much about herself, and probably felt the most free—Jo finds herself obsessing about the events of that nearly-forgotten time, both the very good and the staggeringly ugly. How she deals with this unexpected plunge into the past is sad, liberating, funny, heartbreaking, necessary.
I had never read Sue Miller before—she has a relatively new book out in hardover now, The Senator's Wife—and greatly admired her smart, often subtle observations about relationships, the nature of love, family, identity, freedom, and fantasy, as well as her deft sense of timing and brisk pacing. If you, too, have While I Was Gone waiting unread in your home, you might want to consider it among your next-up options.