Story of forgiveness needs more room

Ten years after her bestselling novel 'The Good Mother,' Sue Miller returns to a woman caught in a tragic dilemma.

WHILE I WAS GONE By Sue Miller Alfred A. Knopf 266 pp., $23

Endings are hard on people. They're even harder on novels. By the time readers arrive at the end of a story, they've built up an emotional and intellectual investment. They've earned - or think they've earned - a certain expertise about the plot, the tone, and the characters in between the covers.

Novelists can get away with anything at the start of a book, but by the end, like it or not, writers are entangled in a kind of collaboration with their audience.

Two of last year's finest books slipped off their tracks toward the end. After an intense first half, Barbara Kingsolver's "Poisonwood Bible" fractures into a collection of stories that dissipate her novel's power. "A Man in Full," Tom Wolfe's enormous and otherwise wonderful book, concludes as though the writer were running late for an appointment.

Unfortunately, the same could be said for Sue Miller's engaging new novel, "While I Was Gone." What's good about Miller's writing is remarkably good. But in the end, the structure of this book is unsound. Its conclusion doesn't satisfy the high standards it sets for itself.

The frank narrator, Jo Becker, has it all: a beautifully restored farmhouse in western Massachusetts, a satisfying career as a veterinarian, and an understanding husband who adores her and his own job as a minister.

Jo is the first to acknowledge that hers is a wonderful life, and yet when lazily napping at one end of her husband's fishing boat, she's haunted by a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. "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, or surely having a thousand times left to do it again. Of doing it well and thoroughly and neatly, as I like to do things, and simultaneously of being at a great distance from my own action."

Miller is a master at plumbing the confluence of emotions that run through a long, loving marriage. In this highly confessional narrative, Jo trusts her husband enough to air her flashes of self-pity and episodes of melodramatic regret. They speak to one another in a mixture of affection, wisdom, and gentle mocking that only years of intimacy can build. And though she doesn't share her husband's religious faith, they've negotiated a profound respect for each other's beliefs.

We're introduced to this admirable marriage just a moment before it's stretched to the breaking point. A chance encounter puts Jo back in touch with Eli, a friend from her hippie days in Cambridge. Both have thoroughly remade themselves since their bohemian days in the late '60s, but their unexpected meeting ignites old feelings of love and regret that threaten to ruin them.

At this crucial point, however, the novel falters. Part of the problem is that Miller hasn't given herself enough room. Jo and Eli find themselves drawn to one another even as they revisit a grisly murder that broke up their commune 30 years ago. Miller moves so expertly through her delicate portrayal of Jo's life in the first 200 pages that it's difficult to understand why she barrels through this complex, exciting material toward the end.

The other problem is that the character of Jo's husband, whom Miller has designed so expertly, reacts with baffling iciness to his wife's temptation to commit adultery. Inexplicably, the immense affection and spiritual wisdom he demonstrates through most of the book doesn't help him react more humanely to his wife's moral struggle. Instead, he withdraws at the moment she needs him most - at the moment we expect him to be there.

"While I Was Gone" remains a beautiful novel that raises fascinating questions about our connection to the people we once were and the ability to remake ourselves, but it's a book that leaves one wanting and deserving more.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to

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