While I Was Gone: A Novel

Paperback | May 26, 2000

bySue Miller

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“Riveting . . . While I Was Gone [celebrates] what is impulsive in human nature.”
–The New York Times

“Miller weaves her themes of secrecy, betrayal, and forgiveness into a narrative that shines.”

Jo Becker has every reason to be content. She has three dynamic daughters, a loving marriage, and a rewarding career. But she feels a sense of unease. Then an old housemate reappears, sending Jo back to a distant past when she lived in a communal house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Drawn deeper into her memories of that fateful summer in 1968, Jo begins to obsess about the person she once was. As she is pulled farther from her present life, her husband, and her world, Jo struggles against becoming enveloped by her past and its dark secret.

“[While I Was Gone] swoops gracefully between the past and the present, between a woman’s complex feelings about her husband and her equally complex fantasies–and fears–about another man. . . . [Miller writes] well about the trials of faith.”
–The New York Times Book Review

“Quietly gripping . . . Jo shines steadily as the flawed and thoroughly modern heroine. As in her 1986 novel, The Good Mother, Miller shows how impulses can fracture the family.”
–USA Today

“Marvelous . . . poignant . . . powerful.”
–Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer

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From the Publisher

“Riveting . . . While I Was Gone [celebrates] what is impulsive in human nature.”–The New York Times“Miller weaves her themes of secrecy, betrayal, and forgiveness into a narrative that shines.”–TimeJo Becker has every reason to be content. She has three dynamic daughters, a loving marriage, and a rewarding career. But she feels a sens...

From the Jacket

"Riveting . . . The narrative pacing is masterly, building tension even in the most psychologically subtle passages. . . . While I Was Gone celebrate[s] what is impulsive in human nature." --CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT The New York Times "MILLER WEAVES HER THEMES OF SECRECY, BETRAYAL AND FORGIVENESS INTO A NARRATIVE THAT SHINES." --Time ...

Sue Miller is the bestselling author of The God Mother, Inventing the Abbotts, Family Pitctures, For Love, and The Distinguished Guest.  She lives in Boston.

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:304 pages, 8 × 5.14 × 0.61 inPublished:May 26, 2000Publisher:Random House Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0345443284

ISBN - 13:9780345443281

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Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not bad, but not great either. Overall, I am glad I finally read this book - it has been on my shelf for ages now. Reading some of the reviews I expected the worst, and maybe that helped. It wasn't awful by any means, although it was slow at times and lacked the action that you anticipated throughout the novel. It concerns an imperfect woman, Jo, who is actually quite a complex character. The novel shows many aspects of her life (youth, marriages, children, and her issues with who she is and urges of who she wants to be) as she reminisces the past. When someone from her past re-enters her life things go for a drastic turn, and it is almost frustrating. I was not able to relate to this character whatsoever, but it did give me more insight into human nature in general. As for the "porn comments", I completely disagree. They had me thinking this book may end up full of graphic sex scenes in every chapter and this is thankfully NOT the case. Lastly, this book was well written but boring at times. As soon as some excitement began it quickly faded. It was just another novel, nothing too spectacular yet nothing too horrible either.
Date published: 2009-03-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exquisitely Written Novel I absolutely loved this book. It is the story of one womans personal journey from her past to her present life. Beautifully written, it describes the various people, emotions and underlying motives that shape who we are. Women especially can relate to her character on many levels. I would highly recommend this book - you won't be disapointed.
Date published: 2008-11-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Just Fantastic When I bought this, I had no idea it was an Oprah pick...I got it because I had read another of her books and enjoyed it...this is the first time I actually wanted to yell at a character in a book...or shake some sense into her...because she was about to do exactly what I would have done...and I wanted to stop her...just wonderful...
Date published: 2006-06-23
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Blech! This book was crap. Utter crap. Do not bother reading it. To do so would make you regret wasting the time it took to read it. Time that you will never get back. That is how I feel.
Date published: 2006-02-06
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Boring This book was terribly boring, I kept reading in hopes of a turn around which never happened. Not recommended.
Date published: 2004-10-06
Rated 1 out of 5 by from While I was Gone While I was thinking about sleeping but wasn't tired enough!... This book was so boring that the only reason I finished it was to find out if there really was a point to this non-climatic novel. I don't understand why Oprah picked this book. I would ONLY ever recommend it if someone was looking for a read that would put them into a deep slumber...FAST.
Date published: 2002-06-30
Rated 3 out of 5 by from no sex was needed! I used to read oprah's book club books! but quite frankly the unecessary placement of sex in all the books i read turned me off of them! I am 16 and i see enough sex on television! so this book was no different , i loved the story hated the sex! i have decided that oprah takes the books that resemble a soap opera and chooses those to belong to her book club!
Date published: 2002-01-13
Rated 1 out of 5 by from This Was Bad I bought this because it was Oprah's pick. I had trouble finishing it but did just so I'd know if it would ever get any better. It didn't. I do not recommend this book.
Date published: 2001-11-01
Rated 3 out of 5 by from What Was Oprah Thinking? It certainly would not be among my list of recommended books. While I did like the subtle details, I did not like the slow moving pace. I could not relate to or even get into the character of Jo.
Date published: 2001-10-21
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Riveting -- I think not! I couldn't put the book down because I was getting impatient for something really interesting and/or exciting to happen. I was disappointed by the very banal story and its eventual outcome.
Date published: 2001-05-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Enjoyable Read I enjoyed getting to know Jo. She was complex and flawed, as most of us are. The story was narrative, therefore the action a bit lacking. Overall, reading this book was a good way spend a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Date published: 2001-04-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Personal What an amazing read! From subtle well-used metaphors to an incredible personal journey, to an intriguing mystery, this book is fantastic! While I may not agree with all of Jo's actions, if I am honest I can relate to her because which of us is entirely in touch with ourselves? The book took me into my relationship with my mother, my husband, and my cat and it was also impossible to put down! The characters have styaed with me after finishing the book as I turn over in my head what happened between them. This is a sign of a well-crafted book. I definitely recommend it!
Date published: 2001-01-06
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing I must admit that I had a hard time putting this book down simply because I was waiting for something to happen... and it never did! I was very disappointed in Oprah's pick, especially since it was the first of them that I have read. Hopefully the next one will be more interesting.
Date published: 2000-12-31
Rated 1 out of 5 by from soft core porn Rarely has a book so revolted me that after finishing it and throwing it on the fire, I had to rush to reclaim it and read it again. Sue Miller has crafted a book a step above a Harlequin romance but a step below the usual Jackie Collins rubbish. One woman's journey into her past and all the missed opportunities to sleep with classmates may make a late night T & A movie on Showcase, but it hardly deserves an accolade from Oprah herself. I was severely disapointed and a little disgusted at the vulgar language and situations. Would not look out of place in a less than reputable Yonge St. shop.
Date published: 2000-12-29
Rated 2 out of 5 by from While I was Gone I was so excited to start this book. Unfortunately, it wasn't as great as I thought it would be! There were a few parts that caught my attention and I couldn't put it down. Then just as quickly as the excitement came, it ended. I would recommend this book to anyone who has a lot time on their hands because, if you are too busy to read the book, you will get lost!!
Date published: 2000-11-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from While I Was Gone This book offered beautiful imagery and was very successful at taking me from the past to the present and back again. The problem was, I couldn't identify with the protagonist -- in fact I disagreed with her at almost every turn! Her relationships were based on a lack of true communication -- she was hiding so much under the surfact that I just wanted to shake her and say "Be Honest!" But I did have some strong reactions, which I look for in a book -- It wasn't just a passive read! Not something I'd read again, but worth a try the first time!
Date published: 2000-11-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from While I Was Gone I enjoyed the book, I found it hard to put down. Took my mind off my own stresses in life. Great book for a lazy day.
Date published: 2000-11-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from One woman's journey... I thought that this book had a great storyline throughout, although the ending was slightly disappointing. In the age, where the main character always seems to resolve the main issue by the end of the book, this novel left me wondering what happened next. Did she continue to run into Eli several times during the course of her life? Did her and her husband ever resolve their issues or was there that continued constant strain on their relationship? I enjoyed the notion that you can't escape from the choices you make in life and that it doesn't take much to bring you back to that time period in your life, but I expected more of a resolution in the end.
Date published: 2000-09-19
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not that bad! Before I decided to write a review myself, I sat back and read some of the ones here, stating how 'boring' or 'dry' this book was. I admit, it was definitely slow at times, however this is a book that I would gradly invite a friend to read!
Date published: 2000-09-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Memories!! During the Mau-Mau rebellion, my Dad also developed a desire to take our family of five to deep, dark Africa as an Anglican missionary. My fear was enormous!! Thank goodness, Mom absolutely refused to go. This book reveals to the world the machinations of the politicians and church, and the devastation that result. It's quite a surprise that such an anti-American, anti-church novel would get so much American promotion!! A well written warning!!
Date published: 2000-09-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not great, Not terrible I may disagree with some other reviewers, but I found the book to be quite a page-turner in the beginning and not so intriguing by the end. I feel the author let us down by not keeping the anticipation high. I would not say that I am disappointed with the book, but I wouldn't mark it as one of the best reads I've had.
Date published: 2000-08-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from While I Read This Book.... I was quite unsure of this book when I bought it as I had read quite a few comments that suggested it was not worth buying. However, I was attracted by the artwork on the cover, and made the plunge. I found this book to have a very interesting plot and the characters were "real" people with the main character revealing her "turning point" in her life. Not a disappointment at all....glad I liked the picture! When I was done reading, I had to get caught up on my life that had continued while I was reading.....
Date published: 2000-08-25
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Slow read Although the subject was excellent, I found the story slow to read. Definitely "not a page turner". Thought provocing and current subject matter. Made me think about what I would do in Jo's situation. She seems to discover her weaknesses-selfishness and secretiveness,and we can only hope she is able to correct these faults. I found that in a few instances I had to re-read certain passages to follow the writer's train of thought. This is only the second of Oprah's book club stories I have read, and I really did not find either of them to my liking. But I will probably keep trying.
Date published: 2000-08-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting! I really enjoyed this story. Although a bit un-realistic (Joe's husband), I was able to relate and reflect on my own life. It was hard to put down. A great summer read!
Date published: 2000-07-31
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Average! I found this book to capture me at the beginning but then it took a turn on the boring and drawn out side. I was disappointed with the ending. It seemed as though the author just got tired of writing.
Date published: 2000-07-27
Rated 2 out of 5 by from While you were gone I was totally disappointed in this Oprah pick. I kept waiting for something to happen...never did finish reading it!
Date published: 2000-07-26
Rated 3 out of 5 by from It was OK Jo kept running away from problems as a young woman, and keeps it up when her family has grown up and moved out. She never learned that the grass is not always greener. The book had potential, but backed off at the last minute and left you feeling as though something more should have happened.
Date published: 2000-07-26
Rated 3 out of 5 by from While I Was Gone I must admit I was drawn to the front cover of the story.....thinking it looked like a good summer read. I did enjoy the novel and found the author was very talented with her descriptive details of everyday life. However, the story was rather long and weak.....I kept waiting for something more to happen. I guess I wish I could have identified with the main character more but I didn't. An easy read but that was about it.
Date published: 2000-07-19
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Disappointing Not nearly as good as I had anticipated. The best part was at the beginning when she was recounting her life at the house on Lyman Street. After that it was quite boring, although I did finish it :)
Date published: 2000-07-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A good read I really enjoyed this book, it`s a good book to read if you just want to relax. It might make you reflect on some aspects of your own life without it being too "deep".
Date published: 2000-07-14
Rated 1 out of 5 by from The BIG YAWN! I read on average a book a week. I bought this book THE DAY Oprah announced it was her pick for June. I have not finished it and I will never finish it! This is the first of Oprah's picks that I could not finish!!
Date published: 2000-07-12
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Good... but not Great I picked up this book after hearing Oprah rave about it and numerous women spouting off about how wonderful and life-changing it is. (I've never purchased an Oprah Club book - it's not an incentive for me). Anyway, the book started off quite promising for a summer reda, but like other reviewers here, I tended to skip a few pages in the second half - and didn't miss a thing.
Date published: 2000-07-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from While I Was Gone Once again, Oprahs pick of the month came out on top! A wonderful book - I could not put it down. A must read.
Date published: 2000-07-04
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Not Bad! I had a real hard time finishing this book. It didn't keep me interested. I kept putting it down (for long periods of time). It took me about 2 months to read.
Date published: 2000-06-30
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Not Bad! I had a real hard time finishing this book. It didn't keep me interested. I kept putting it down (for long periods of time). It took me about 2 months to read.
Date published: 2000-06-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Great Summer Journey If you need a book to take you away from reality this summer, this is the one. Yes, parts of it are unrealistic (her husband, for one)but that's part of the fun of the journey. The story is good, the characters become a part of you and the turns along the way make it a good ride.
Date published: 2000-06-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Loved it! An awesome summer read, once I picked it up I could not put it back down again.
Date published: 2000-06-19
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Waste of Time & Money Very disappointed that this book would even be considered worth reading. Glad I didn't pay full price for it. Keep picking it up and reading a few pages in the hopes it will get better. Doubt that I will finish reading it.
Date published: 2000-06-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from It was my pick months before Oprah picked it... This is a great summer read. I read it months ago!!
Date published: 2000-06-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting book Jo is a restless searcher for "more in life". Now that her daughters have moved on to their own lives, Jo starts to wonder "What if...". Her reminiscing affects her present day life, and those of her children and husband. An interesting look at a mature woman reflecting and dreaming.
Date published: 2000-06-12

Extra Content

Read from the Book

IT'S ODD, I SUPPOSE, THAT WHEN I THINK BACK OVER that happened in that terrible time, one of my sharpest memories should be of some few moments the day before everything began. Seemingly unconnected to what followed, this memory is often one of the first things that comes to me when I call up those weeks, those months-the prelude, the long, beautiful, somber note I heard but chose to disregard.This is it: silence between us. The only sounds the noises of the boat-the squeal of the oarlocks when my husband pulled on the oars, the almost inaudible creak of the wooden seat with his slight motion, and then the glip and liquid swirl of the oars through the water, and the sound of the boat rushing forward.My husband's back was to me as I lay in the hard curve of the bow. He sat still a long time between each pull. The oars dripped and then slowly stopped dripping. Everything quieted. Sometimes he picked up his fishing rod and reeled it in a bit, pulling it one way or another. Sometimes he recast, standing high above me in the boat, the light line whipping wider and wider, whistling faintly in its looping arc across the sky before he let it go.It was a day in mid-fall, well after the turning of the leaves. The weather was glorious. We always took one day a week off together, and if the weather was good, we often went fishing. Or my husband went fishing and I went along, usually with a book to read. Even when the girls were small and it was harder to arrange, we managed at least part of the day alone together. In those early years we sometimes made love in the boat when we were fishing, or in the woods-we had so little time and privacy at home.It was a Monday. The day off was always Monday, because Sunday was Daniel's busiest day at work and Saturday was mine. Monday was our day of rest. And what I recollect of that Monday, that fine fall day, is that for some long moments in the boat, I was suddenly aware of my state, in a way we aren't often. That is, I was abruptly and most intensely, sharply aware of all the aspects of life surrounding me, and yet of feeling neither part of it nor truly separated from it. Somehow impartial, unattached-an observer. Yet sentient of it all. Deeply sentient, in fact. But to no apparent purpose.If I were trying to account for this feeling, I might say that it had something to do with the way I was half lying, half sitting on several pillows in the bow, the way the curving walls of the old rowboat framed a foreground for my view as they rose away from me. I saw them, these peeling wooden inner walls, and then my husband's familiar shape. Above him there was the flat, milky-blue sky and sometimes, when we were close enough to shore, the furred, nearly black line of the spruces and pines against it. In the air above us swallows darted-dark, quick silhouettes-and once a cedar waxwing moved smoothly through them. Layers of life above me. Below, I could hear the lap of the deep water through the walls of the boat.As a result, let's say, I felt suspended, waiting. Between all these worlds and part of none of them.But this isn't what I really believe; I think the sensation came from somewhere within me.We feel this way sometimes in adolescence, too, surely most of us can call it up. But then there's the burning impatience for the next thing to take shape, for whatever it is we are about to become and be to announce itself. This was different: there was, I supposed, no next thing. I had felt something like this every now and then in the last year or so, sometimes at work as I tightened a stitch or gave an injection: the awareness of having done this a thousand times before, of surely having a thousand times left to do it again. Of doing it well and thoroughly and neatly, as I liked to do things, and simultaneously of being at a great distance from my own actions.Or at home, setting the table, sitting down with my husband to another meal, beginning our friendly evening conversation about the day-the house quiet around us, the old dogs dozing under the table or occasionally nuzzling our feet. A sense suddenly of being utterly present and also, simultaneously, far, far away.Now I stirred, shifted my weight. My husband turned, no aspect of his face not dear to me. "Hurting?" he asked.And with that, as quickly as it had come over me, the moment ended. I was back, solidly in time, exactly where we were. It was getting chilly. I had been lying in the wooden boat for several hours now, and even though I had the pillows under me, I was stiff. I had a bad hip. Replacement had been discussed, though everyone said I was young for it. I liked only that part of the problem, being too young for something."A little," I said."We'll head back.""Are you sure?""I've got two reasonable ones. I'm a happy man." He began to reel his line in.I turned and stretched. "How nice, to be a happy man," I said.He looked over his shoulder at me, to get my tone. "It is nice," he said."And I meant it," I answered.As we rowed back, as we drove home, I found myself wanting to tell my husband about my feeling, but then not knowing what to call it. The shadow of it lingered with me, but I didn't say anything to Daniel. He would hear it as a want, a need. He would feel called upon to offer comfort. Daniel is a minister, a preacher, a pastor. His business is the care of his flock, his medium is words-thrilling words, admonishing or consoling words. I knew he could console me, but consolation wasn't what I felt I wanted. And so we drove along in silence, too, and I looked out the window at the back roads that sometimes seemed utterly rural, part of the nineteenth century, and sometimes seemed abruptly the worst of contemporary suburban life: the sere, beautiful old fields carved up to accommodate the too-wide circular asphalt driveways, the too-grand fake-garrison-colonial houses.We lived in the center of town, an old, old town-Adams Mills, the Adamses long dead, the mills long burned down. Our house was a simple square farmhouse, added on to repeatedly at the back of the first floor over the years, as was the custom then with these old New England homes. We had an unpainted barn behind it, and behind that was a small meadow which turned to pinewoods at the far edge, woods that hid our neighbors to the rear, though in the summer we could hear them fighting, calling each other things that used to make the girls laugh with joy. "You fat-ass pig!" they'd imitate. "You stupid shithead!"-which for some years they had, uncorrected, as "shiphead."We used the barn as a garage now, and Daniel had his study out there, in a small heated room at the back. When we'd moved in, it was still full of rusting old tools and implements, the kinds of things people clean up and hang on their walls as folk art. There were still mason jars of unidentifiable fruits and vegetables in the old root cellar, a dark earthen space you entered by lifting a sort of trapdoor in the kitchen yard. Because of all this, we felt connected to the house's life as part of a farm.Yet at the front of the house we were townsfolk, connected to the village. Our view was across the old common to the big Congregational church. Not Daniel's church, it's true, and we looked at its back side-its rump, the girls had called it-but it was a splendid civic vista nonetheless. Beyond the church, we could see the row of grand Georgian houses lined up face-to-face with its front.Along one side of the green was an inn, where we could get a fancy and tasteless meal in the main dining room, or a beer and a good hamburger in the bar, with its large-screen TV always tuned to the sports network. Along the other side of the green there were shops: a small, expensive grocery, a video store, a store with high-quality kitsch-stoneware, cute gardening tools, stationery, rubber stamps, coffee-table books, Venetian-glass paperweights. Everything in town was clapboard, painted white with green or black trim. If you tried another color, the historical commission descended on you and made you very, very sorry you had.We turned into our drive now and pulled up next to the horse chestnut that shaded the dooryard. It dropped its leaves early every year. They littered the yard now, and our feet made a crunching noise on them as we crossed to the back door. The nearly bare ancient branches, twisted blackly above us in the dusky light, made me think of winter. When we opened the door, the house was silent. Daniel began to put his gear away in the spare room off the hall, speaking loudly as he clattered around. "Boy, it is sure nice to have dogs! Dogs are so great, how they come running to greet you when you get home, how they make you feel like you count, even when you don't." This was a familiar riff, and as I headed to the john, I threw back my contribution: "Dogs! Dogs! Man's best friend!"When I came out, a few minutes later, all three dogs had finally bestirred themselves from wherever they'd been nesting and were whacking their happy tails around the kitchen. Daniel was cleaning his fish at the sink-the smell already suffused the air-and there was hope of food for them. Nothing excited them more. They barely greeted me.The answering machine was blinking. I turned it on. There were three messages, all for Daniel, which was the way it usually went, except when I was on call. I'm a veterinarian, and the crises among animals are less complex, more manageable, than those of humans-actually very much a part of my choice of profession.Daniel had turned slightly from the counter to listen to the calls, and I watched his face as he took them in-one about relocating a confirmation class because of a scheduling conflict; one from Mortie, his assistant pastor, reporting on the worsening state of a dying parishioner Daniel was very fond of, a young mother with cancer; one from another minister, suggesting he and Daniel try to "pull something together" among their colleagues about some racial incidents in the three closely adjoining towns around us. Daniel's face was thin and sharp and intelligent, his eyes a pale gray-blue, his skin white and taut. I'd always loved looking at him. He registered everything quickly, transparently-with these calls first annoyance, then the sag of sorrow, then a nod of judicious agreement-but there was something finally self-contained about him too. I'd often thought this was what made him so good at what he did, that he held on to some part of himself through everything. That he could hear three calls like this and be utterly responsive to each of them, and then turn back and finish cleaning his trout. As he did now."Will you go and visit Amy?" I asked.His plaid shirt pulled and puckered across his shoulder blades with his motion. His head was bent in concentration. "I don't know," he said without looking at me. "I'll call Mortie back and see when I'm done here."I refilled the dogs' bowl with water and poured some more dry food for them. Daniel worked silently at the sink, his thoughts elsewhere. I went out the front door and got the mail from the box at the road. The air was getting chilly, darkness was gathering around the house. I turned on the living room lights and sat down. I sorted through the circulars, the bills, I threw away the junk. While I was working, I heard Daniel leave the kitchen, headed across the yard to his office in the barn to make his calls.WITH THE CLOSING OF THE DOOR I FELT RELEASED FROM THE awareness of his sorrow that had held me in his orbit. I began to roam the house, with the dogs as my entourage, feeling restless, a feeling that seemed connected, somehow, to that moment in the boat, and maybe also to Daniel's sad news. I went up the steep, narrow stairs to the second floor, where the girls' rooms were.All the doors were shut up there, and I opened them, standing in each doorway in turn. The sloped-ceiling rooms were deeply shadowed. Light from the hall fell in long rectangles on the old painted pine floors. In the older girls' rooms the beds were made, the junk was gone-boxed in the attic or thrown away forever. Only Sadie's room still spoke of her. One wall was completely covered with pictures she'd cut out of magazines. There were stark photos of dancers in radical poses, of nearly naked models in perfume or liquor ads, engaged in moments of stylized passion, there were romantic and soft-focus views of places she dreamed of going to-Cuzco, Venice, Zanzibar. There were guys: Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt. In the corner of the room where the ceiling sloped nearly to the floor, all the stuffed animals and dolls she'd ever owned were standing wide-eyed in rows by height, like some bizarre crowd in the bleachers at a high-school event.I went into Cass's blank room and lay down across her bed. Maybe it was the girls I wanted. Maybe I just missed the comfort of their noise, of their smells and music and flesh.

Bookclub Guide

1.         In the novel's first scene Jo describes the movement of her boat upon the waters: "In the air above us swallows darted--dark, quick silhouettes--and once a cedar waxwing moved smoothly through them. Layers of life above me. Below, I could hear the lap of the deep water through the wall of the boat." How does this reflect the book's epigraph? How do this passage, and the epigraph, work together to express the novel's themes? In what sense are the "trout" in the book's epigraph, and the "deep water" in this passage, metaphors for a universal experience? What do you think they are meant to represent, and how do they foreshadow the novel's events?2.         One of the notions Miller returns to throughout the novel is the fracturing of identity, and the disparity between past and future selves. On page 11 she notes, "The impossibility of accepting new versions of oneself that life kept offering. The impossibility of the old version's vanishing." What does she mean by this? How does this relate to Jo's experience in Cambridge? How does it contribute later to her attraction for Eli?3.         The first lie Jo tells about herself when she moves into the house on Lyman Street is her name--she calls herself Felicia Stead. Is this an important lie? What about the stories Jo makes up about her background? How did you feel about this section of the novel, and about Jo/Felicia during this period? Do you think the liberties she takes with these and other details about her previous life enable her to be more herself--more honest, in a way, because this reinvention of herself is truer to her heart than the life and the identity she fled--or do they engage her in falsehoods and deceptions that undermine the possibility of truth, and of true friendship?4.         Discuss Jo's feelings after Daniel's sermon. She has not seen him since their disagreement the night before; yet as she leaves the church she feels "such a wild reckless joy and excitement that I wanted to yell, to dance under the pelting rain. Daniel! I wanted to shout . . . Daniel, my husband!" What's changed?5.         Discuss the sermon itself--in particular, this notion of "memory as a god-given gift." How do themes of memory and forgetfulness reverberate in the novel as a whole? What relationship, if any, does memory have to morality? How and on what levels do you think Jo was moved by Daniel's sermon? How were you moved by it as a reader?6.         After Eli's confession Jo has to make a series of difficult choices. She could have shielded Daniel from the knowledge that she had been prepared to commit adultery, but to do so she would also have had to shield Eli. Should she have turned Eli in to the authorities? Should she have confessed her romantic intentions with Eli to Daniel? What should Jo have done? What do you think the author believes Jo should have done? What would you have done?7.         After he confesses to the murder, Eli makes the argument that his scientific achievements counterbalance his crime. "I've worked the rest of my life to assure that who I am has some meaning, some value beyond this part of my past . . . And I have lived my life that way: making sure every day of its usefulness, of its meaning. I wrecked one life, yes. Dana's life . . . but I've given, I'm giving now, to thousands, to hundreds of thousands, of other lives." Has Eli redeemed himself? How is your response to this shaped by the fact that--financially, in stature, in his notion of his own self-worth, in the pleasure that he derives from it--Eli has benefited from this work? Can a person who has committed a murder ever be redeemed? What do you think the author believes, and why?8.         Long before Eli's confession to Jo, Eli and Jo meet for coffee and Jo makes a similar comment about her own guilt about having treated her first husband so poorly, and how her work has helped to ease her conscience: "It made me feel I'd earned my way back to a normal life." Is this legitimate? More legitimate than Eli's argument? Do you feel that either of them ever really has to face the consequences of their mistakes? Discuss the differences--and the similarities--between the ways in which the two have lived their lives.9.         After Jo's description of her second meeting with Daniel, she says, "We were married six weeks later, and I would say we have lived happily, if not ever after, at least enough of the time since. There are always compromises, of course, but they are at the heart of what it means to be married. They are, occasionally, everything." What does she mean by this? What kinds of compromises have she and Daniel made for each other? Discuss this in relation to the end of the novel. Look in particular at the scene where Daniel waits in the shadows for Jo to depart ("He's seen me in the car, and he's stopped there, waiting. He doesn't realize I've seen him. He doesn't want me to see him."), and the scene with Daniel and Jo at the airport ("I made myself register consciously the expression that had passed for a moment over his face as he moved forward to hold me: a sadness, a visible regret.")10.         When her children were young, Jo used to tell them bedtime stories about a character named Miraculotta. One night Cassie said to Jo, "I know who Miraculotta really is, Mom . . . she's you." Later, as an angry, disaffected fourteen-year-old, Cass's awe for her mother has changed to contempt: "You're so limited," Jo recalls Cass telling her, and in response, Jo thinks, "Well yes, of course I am." What does Jo mean by this? Is she referring to herself specifically, or to all parents? What do you feel about Jo as a mother?11.         "Deliberately, playfully, I fed fantasies about Eli. I allowed them to become sexual, I gave them specific flesh. I imagined us in sundering, tearing passions in hotel rooms in Boston, in nondescript motels or inns in towns twenty or fifty miles away . . . It was all right to imagine this, I said to myself . . . as long as I understood it wasn't going to happen." Do fantasies have a morality? Is it all right to imagine, as long as we don't follow through? Are thoughts, in and of themselves, dangerous? Immoral?  12.         What do you think of Daniel and Jo's marriage? Would Jo's betrayal of Daniel have been more profound if she'd actually had an affair with Eli? What do you think the author thinks, and why?13.         At the end of the novel, several people are confronted by revelations they find shocking about people they thought they knew: Sadie discovers the murder in her mother's past; Jo discovers that her father had a previous marriage; and Daniel, of course, discovers his wife's near infidelity. In her letter to Sadie, Jo writes, "Now there's a different message, I guess, something having to do with our inability to know or guess at the secret depths of another person." Later she makes reference to a similar feeling on Daniel's part--"the momentary possibility that he didn't know me at all"--and she recalls her mother's words after her mother's confession: "We're the same, aren't we? It hasn't changed us in your eyes to know this." Is it possible to ever really know another person? Should all secrets be told?14.         Using Jo's reflections after her mother's confession ("It seems we need someone to know us as we are--with all we have done--and forgive us . . . ") and, most particularly, her reflections in the novel's closing pages ("Perhaps it's best to live with the possibility that around any corner, at any time, may come the person who reminds you of your own capacity to surprise yourself, to put at risk everything that's dear to you. Who reminds you of the distances we have to bridge to begin to know anything about one another. Who reminds you that what seems to be--even about yourself--may not be. That like him, you need to be forgiven."), discuss the theme of forgiveness in the novel.

Editorial Reviews

"Riveting . . . The narrative pacing is masterly, building tension even in the most psychologically subtle passages. . . . While I Was Gone celebrate[s] what is impulsive in human nature."--CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT   The New York Times"MILLER WEAVES HER THEMES OF SECRECY, BETRAYAL AND FORGIVENESS INTO A NARRATIVE THAT SHINES."--Time"FASCINATING . . . A NEW NOVEL OF GREAT INTEGRITY AND POWER . . . Despite having a loving husband, three vivacious daughters, a beautiful home in rural Massachusetts, and satisfaction in her work, Jo Becker's mind is invaded by a persistent restlessness. Then, an old roommate reappears to bring back Jo's memories of her early 20s. . . . Her obsession with that period of her life and with the crime that concluded it eventually estrange Jo from everything she holds dear, causing her to tell lie after lie as she is pulled closer to this man from her past--and to a horrible secret."--Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel"MARVELOUS . . . POIGNANT . . . POWERFUL."--Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer"A BEAUTIFUL AND FRIGHTENING BOOK . . . MANY READERS WILL FIND IT DIFFICULT TO FORGET. . . . It swoops gracefully between the past and the present, between a woman's complex feelings about her husband and her equally complex fantasies--and fears--about another man. . . . I can think of few contemporary novelists--John Updike and Frederick Buechner are two others--who write so well about the trials of faith."--The New York Times Book Review"QUIETLY GRIPPING . . . Jo shines steadily as the flawed and thoroughly modern heroine. As in her 1986 novel, The Good Mother, Miller shows how impulses can fracture the family."--USA Today