Reading guide for While I Was Gone by Sue Miller

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

While I Was Gone

by Sue Miller

While I Was Gone by Sue Miller X
While I Was Gone by Sue Miller
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Feb 1999, 265 pages
    Feb 2000, 265 pages

  • Rate this book

Buy This Book

About this Book

Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Sue Miller's While I Was Gone. We hope they will aid your understanding of the many themes and issues that underlie Miller's powerfully moving story of a middle-aged woman who, drawn by the currents of passion, grief, and nostalgia, puts at risk everything she has always held dear.


1. Joey describes the strange feeling she has in the boat with Daniel before Eli Mayhew comes back into her life as a premonition. Daniel, however, describes it as an "admonition" (96). Do you think that Daniel is, in the end, correct? If so, against what is Joey being admonished?

2. While I Was Gone might be described as the story of a midlife crisis. Joey is dismayed by "the impossibility of accepting the new versions of oneself that life kept offering. The impossibility of the old versions vanishing" (11). Even the new version, she knows, will soon disappear, and she feels sorrow for "what had been our life in this place and was already--this is what I felt--passing. Had always been passing" (100). Why does Daniel seem to reconcile himself to this process so easily? Does Joey herself reconcile herself to it in the end? If so, what has helped her to accept it?

3. Why do you think Joey chose to become a veterinarian? Which of her early experiences might have influenced her in this decision?

4. Does Eli's choice of euthanasia for his dog, Arthur, tell us anything about Eli? Does the fact that Joey, as a vet, agrees to perform such operations tell us anything about her? After Arthur dies, Eli says he feels as though they've committed some crime together, a suggestion that disturbs Joey. Why is she disturbed? Do you think she might on some level agree with him?

5. Joey ponders whether her attraction to Eli might be due to the fact that "the middle-aged Eli contained . . . me also. The self that had known him then. Myself-when-young" (138). Does this seem an adequate explanation for her feelings? What else might account for them?

6. How many times during the course of her life does Joey "run away"? Why has she developed this recurring pattern? What, in general, is she fleeing? Do you think, as she occasionally does, that her marriage and her career are in themselves a sort of running away? As the book ends, do you believe that she has stopped running?

7. Everyone in While I Was Gone seems to have a different idea of what love is or should ideally be. How do these ideas differ? How are they tested during the course of the novel?

8. Do you believe that Joey made the right decision in turning Eli in to the police? Does Eli have any justification in claiming that he has morally redeemed his life through his work? Does the fact that the police decide not to pursue Joey's accusation strike you as, in the end, the right thing for all the characters involved, or does it bother you?

9. "There are always compromises, of course," Joey says about her marriage, "but they are at the heart of what it means to be married. They are, occasionally, everything" (95). What compromises have Joey and Daniel each made in order to stay married? What does she mean when she says they are occasionally "everything"? What reservations does Daniel have about Joey's work, and what reservations does Joey have about Daniel's?

10. Daniel and Eli take a quick dislike to one another, based primarily on Eli's almost mocking criticisms, as a man of science, about Daniel's religious faith. Do you believe that the moral gap that opens between the two men reflects on their different philosophies? If so, does Miller imply that religious faith is "good," and that a purely scientific outlook lacks some essential moral dimension?

11. Cass tells Joey, "I'm just not interested in what you and Dad have. In a safe life....In sweetness and light" (152). Do you think that Joey and Daniel do live a "safe life"? Does anyone, for that matter? Is it even possible to make your life or your marriage safe? Does Joey herself feel that she has taken a safe way out? If so, is she correct?

12. In what ways does Cass resemble her mother? In what ways are they different?

13. Joey's (or Licia's) friends in the group house feel her to be elusive. Years later, her daughter Sadie says the same thing. Do you, as a reader, find this to be the case? Is the "real" Joey different from Joey as she consciously presents herself to the reader?

14. After Joey tells Daniel about Eli's revelations at the Boston Ritz, Daniel asks "So what does all this have to do with your going to Boston secretly to meet him?", and Joey "understood that where the story for me was somehow all of a piece, for him it was two quite separate narratives, with two separate meanings" (210). Which of them is looking at the evening correctly? Are the two narratives quite as connected as Joey found them to be, or as separate as Daniel sees them?

15. Eli says to Joey, "I suppose it could be said that I need a kind of forgiveness from you" (201), adding that he has already forgiven himself. Joey replies, "I don't think it suffices to forgive yourself" (202). Does Joey, in fact, forgive Eli in the end? Does she forgive herself? Joey realizes that she needs a very personal type of forgiveness from Daniel, while Daniel himself makes such requests only of his God. Which approach do you think is the right one?

Reproduced with the permission of Random House Inc. Copyright Random House Inc.
Page numbers, in most reading guides, refer to paperback editions.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Ballantine Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: That Time I Loved You
    That Time I Loved You
    by Carianne Leung
    Carrianne Leung was a Toronto Book Award finalist for That Time I Loved You as well as for her debut...
  • Book Jacket: The Pianist from Syria
    The Pianist from Syria
    by Aeham Ahmad
    Aeham Ahmad became famous as the face of Syrian suffering when a photo of him playing piano in the ...
  • Book Jacket: The Smiling Man
    The Smiling Man
    by Joseph Knox
    Joseph Knox's latest turns on a simple premise: an unidentified and unidentifiable murdered man is ...
  • Book Jacket: The Heavens
    The Heavens
    by Sandra Newman
    I've been a big fan of Sandra Newman's writing ever since reading her 2014 novel The Country of Ice ...

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    American Princess
    by Stephanie Marie Thornton

    Rated 4.9 stars by BookBrowse members - one of the highest scores of all time!
    Reader Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    A People's History of Heaven
    by Mathangi Subramanian

    A story of love and friendship, and fighting for the places we love.
    Reader Reviews

Book Club
Book Jacket
Girls Burn Brighter
by Shobha Rao

An extraordinary and heart-rending tale of two girls with all the odds against them.

About the book
Join the discussion!
Book Club Giveaway!
Win The Summer Country

Win up to 12 copies to share with friends or your book club!

A sweeping epic of lost love, lies, jealousy, and rebellion set in colonial Barbados.


Word Play

Solve this clue:

D T T! Full S A!

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.