Sue Miller's fifth novel succeeds best as a portrait of a woman in a midlife crisis. Jo Becker, a veterinarian, is old enough to have a bad hip, too young to have it replaced. And that's only one of the ways in which she's locked restlessly in limbo. With the last of her three daughters off to college, she can savor the quieter life with her husband, a minister; yet naturally she misses her brood. "It was my world then," she thinks, remembering a time when the girls were younger, closer to her. "I was wrapped up in it, held in it ... And now I'm not. Now I float." She floats toward trouble, of course.
As in her previous books -- stretching back to "The Good Mother," her acclaimed first novel, in 1986 -- Miller demonstrates an arresting talent for conveying small, ordinary moments and the complexities of quotidian family interactions, plus imaginative sex -- yes, with that man of the cloth, who is such a sympathetic character you could call him the Good Husband. Jo is a taster of moments, able to weigh each one, often to delicious effect. Here she is setting the table for Christmas: "As I sailed the folded white cloth into the air and it bellied out over the table, it caught the first sure shafts of sunlight falling into the room and sank dazzlingly down, like the descent of a blessing, I thought, and I willed myself to record it, to remember."
Readers may find it harder to swallow the means by which Miller injects a dose of Jo's youth into her current life. After fleeing a stifling first marriage, Jo had once lived in a bohemian household with five other free souls. One of her housemates, Eli Mayhew, turns up by chance in Jo's western Massachusetts town, and in her thoughts she flirts with the era when "we didn't know what would happen next: that was our great gift." Then she flirts with Eli himself, seeing in him a way to keep from knowing even in middle age exactly what will happen to her. But there is something sinister about Eli, something that threatens to wreck the life she's spent 25 years building.
"While I Was Gone" -- the title reflects Jo's conviction that she has abandoned one life after another, or that they have abandoned her -- gives Miller the chance to limn a '60s youth, an initially contented marriage and, eventually, a marriage struggling to regain its balance. She handles all three areas with masterly skill. It's just the connective tissue that feels contrived, in part because of weak plotting and in part because Eli, foggily characterized in both his past and his present incarnations, remains an ungraspable character.
"I'd always assumed about myself that I'd be faithful in marriage," Jo observes. "But it seemed to me now that there might be circumstances so compelling, so out of the ordinary, that the old rules, the old feelings would no longer apply." There might be, but the circumstances she faces here don't seem like the ones. Still, that small failure shouldn't damage the pleasure that readers draw from observing Miller describe the way Jo slips, in increments, out of sync with her marriage and into sync with that end-product of many a midlife crisis: a self-absorbed -- and borderline self-satisfied -- regret.