Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Lessons from the Pros: While I was Gone by Sue Miller

Jo Becker is a perfect example of a Plain Jane protagonist. She is the main character in Sue Miller's While I Was Gone, a pick for Oprah's Book Club, but more importantly to me, an example book used in Donald Maass' The Fire in Fiction.

Jo is the wife of a minister, a mother of adult children, and a doctor of veterinary medicine. Her day-to-day life is mundane, her interaction with her kids is typical, her work is uninspiring. So what makes her so special?

She has a past which involves living communally with bohemian druggies, and the unsolved murder of her dearest friend. Her personality trait isn't unusual for characters "with a past"--Jo Becker is a private person. Miller threaded the trait throughout the novel with such expertise that I'm not even sure I would've noticed had I not taken the time to mull her story over.

Personality traits play a role in the character arc. The sullen seem brighter by the end of the book, the hopeful endure hopelessness but emerge hopeful still, the hardened soften. Jo Becker tries to be less private, but fails. She grows, but doesn't. She's still private.

Before Jo joined the commune, she was a married woman, with a terrific education and wonderful future: "A house. Children. Dogs. Money. Lovingly furnished rooms." But she wanted something else, not more, just different. She left a teaching job to become a bar waitress. Then she left her husband without notice. Just left, moved to another town, and joined the commune. No one knew where she was, not her husband, her mother, her friends from her previous life.

Once established with her new friends, she was still private. They didn't know her real name or background; she kept this information to herself.

The only person she ever told everything to was her future husband, Daniel, a habit she carried on throughout their married life. He knew her past, her present, her heart. Things she never shared with the children they'd had together. Their kids didn't know her well at all. Things she probably could've told them as they grew up, she kept inside. She was private.

But when her past caught up with her, the one time she should've been private, she wasn't. She told her husband everything. Her habit of sharing with Daniel threatened to ruin their marriage.

Sue Miller used her character's major idiosyncrasy against her, and by doing so, deepened the plot and increased the tension.

By the end of the book, Jo's growth through her character arc is slight. She's still private, as illustrated by a simple line from a friend: "That's right. Don't tell me anything."

(For a full review of While I was Gone, see my post on 777 Peppermint Place.)

(This novel was purchased from a retail dealer, and was not a gift from the author for the purpose of review.)
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  1. I love Plain Jane protagonists. They can make a powerful impact, because most readers will relate to them on a very personal level. My favorite Plain Jane protagonist is Jane Austen's Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. She made my heart ache and yet she made feel like standing up and cheering.

  2. Terrific example of a Plain Jane, Cassandra. And you're right about them being relatable. I could empathize with much of what Jo felt.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. I really enjoyed your review of this on Peppermint Place. I've added it to my to-read list.