Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Serial Miller

By Shelly Ridenour

APRIL 5, 1999:  Novelist Sue Miller has a knack for revealing a side of domesticity that is touchingly, believably real - and, by turns, pretty damn scary.

We're not talking about abusive relationships or secret, Springer-ready lives, but the everyday ups and downs that real people go through behind closed doors. The thoughts, desires, daydreams that creep into their - our - minds when taking a coffee break or driving in evening traffic or just lying in bed next to a spouse. And that reality can be a disturbing thing; who really wants to think about their parents confessing to each other that things might be easier if you just didn't come home for the holidays?

Miller's much-lauded debut, "The Good Mother," offered an aching look into lives shaken by divorce and custody, the passion of wanting someone again and the burden that it can place on your "old" life. With her latest, "While I Was Gone," Miller tells the story of Jo Becker, a fiftyish veterinarian living in a small town with her preacher husband and an empty nest; her three daughters - the New York sophisticate, punk rock shocker and sweet co-ed - float in and out of her life as regularly, really, as any young adults who live away from their hometown. Though she is happy with her life and the choices she made to get there, Jo still carries with her the memories of another life.

Some thirty years ago, Jo did exactly what so many people fantasize about, or threaten, in the middle of a sleepless night: she walked out on a young marriage, called her mother only to tell her she was alive and well, and created a whole new persona for herself - erasing all traces of a troubled life, including her name, her husband, her career and her familial history. She wasn't running away from an abusive mate, or the law, or any of the other TV movie of the week reasons, but from mundaneness. Suddenly, she finds herself living in a big old house in Boston with a bunch of hippies, students, artists and activists, who think her name is Licia and that she's just a waitress at the local bar. The fibs occasionally trip her up, but it all comes crashing down on her head when one of her new family is brutally murdered - an event that shakes her back into, literally, "reality." So, when an old housemate shows up in the quiet town of Jo's middle age, she is suddenly faced with bubbling memories of "What if?" What if she still had the freedom of not having a family, of not worrying about the things that take up her days? The thoughts - and I hope to God I never stop having harmless crushes - lead to stupid actions and stupid words, and eventually the kind of wounding betrayal that comes as much from the latter as the former.

Like everyday life, Miller's story doesn't always consume - it ebbs and flows without ever crashing down; but her storytelling and her deep respect for her richly-drawn characters keep the reader contentedly buoyant.


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