Jo Becker is feeling restless. That seems to come naturally, since her children left home. Of course, her husband Daniel is there, but he's always back in his office performing his duties as church minister.
Jo has a busy life as well as the local town veterinarian. She also devotes time to keeping track of her grown daughters who are scattered throughout the country.
All this free time gives Jo a chance to reflect on her life as it was at her children's current age. While taking care of a dog at work one day, Jo realizes its owner is the wife of an old pre-college roommate of Jo's named Eli Mayhew.
Jean says her husband, Eli, will have to make decisions about the dog, so he'll have to call Jo himself when he returns from out of town. The recollection of Eli's name awakens many long retired memories and feelings about that time period.
While I Was Gone takes the reader back to this independent time in Jo's life. She married young. One day, she just left her husband and headed to Cambridge, Massachusetts. By the time she arrived on the bus, she decided to change her life. When she found a house full of roommates to live with, she became Felicia Stead, single waitress with a fictitious past.
There were several young adults in the house. Eli was the quietest and most reclusive of them all, spending the majority of his social time in the college science lab.
This portion of While I Was Gone focuses on the housemates as a group and Jo's growth with these friends. She doesn't tell them she's married to a man named Ted. When asked about her parents, she says they're dead.
At this point in Jo's life, she's extremely happy. It's that time in youth where there's little responsibility. Her friends and roommates lived for the day. It was 1968 after all. That's what you were supposed to do back then.
All of this happiness comes to a sudden, crashing halt one evening. I am treading lightly and purposely being vague. Let's just say that the events of that night change the housemates lives forever and they go their separate ways. Jo returns home to her family. She divorces Ted and begins the path to her veterinary career.
Seeing Eli makes Jo feel young again. It aids her restless spirit as she thinks of the days when she was young and free. They meet a couple of times without spouses as Jo finds herself being attracted to Eli. Jo ponders adultery as she is driving to their last meeting. They come together in a bar and begin talking about their days in the Cambridge house. Eli's perception of the events from thirty years ago is very upsetting to Jo. (Again, I apologize for being vague. If you only knew how hard it is to keep the secrets of this book!)
Because of the circumstances, Jo must tell Daniel of her meeting with Eli. Her true intentions come out as well. Daniel is very hurt and distant. Jo must now battle these demons of the past and present on her own. While I Was Gone is her story of that battle.
I see now why Oprah waved her magic wand and granted Sue Miller's novel Oprah's Book Club status. It is an ideal discussion book. I mean, how many married women haven't felt restless and daydreamed about those carefree days?
Perhaps there's someone from your past for which you still hold a candle? Does the thought of that person make you smile? Can you relate to Jo, or are you offended by her intentions?
I must also add that I am purposely skipping over a major portion of the book. I'll just add that Jo is faced with a major moral dilemma. She must decide what to do, with each option impacting the lives of her family a great deal. It's very easy to judge Jo outright, but as a reader, I had to step back and think What Would I Do?. There aren't many books that pose such an interesting question.
This novel is unusual for me in that I didn't really care for any of the characters, yet I still found the story interesting. Everyone seemed self-centered. Jo, Eli, Daniel, even the housemates from 1968 all possessed this characteristic. Then again, I guess that's the way it is in the real world. Sue Miller is to be commended for writing such an interesting book, in that the reader can dislike the characters, yet love the description of their lives.
While I Was Gone is an interesting story. It's hard not to enjoy it. I wonder if those that didn't like it already had a bias against this silly Oprah Book Club and therefore hate anything related to it. Aside from my personal views, I am glad the club exists as it introduces me to books I may never have seen otherwise. This book is a perfect example.
I eagerly recommend this book. Women will probably relate to the story better than men would. If you belong to some sort of reading group, I suggest you consider While I was Gone. The edition with the magic Oprah stamp on the front has an interview with Sue Miller in the back. It also contains reading group questions and discussion topics.