While You Were Gone is a lovely read. It’s thoughtful, and deeply felt, and well-written, and structured with competence. It gently crosses a few genres: women’s fiction, Southern Gothic, literary homage, and what I indelicately think of as Dead/Dying Parent Lit. It balances between the three narrating consciousnesses of three sisters raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and although it offers the reader a pretty clear idea of which sister is the author’s favorite, it gives no short shrift to the complexity of the other two. All of this adds up to a fine novel, a book crafted with expertise and emotion to explore a particular family’s story and serve it up to readers as a worthwhile way to spend three hundred pages. The problem: it isn’t much more than that.
The sisters at the center of the novel bear some resemblance to the trios of sisters in King Lear and Chekhov’s Three Sisters. More the latter than the former, though. The tragedies and machinations of While You Were Gone are domestic—problems between people that do not stray often into life and death, that do not affect the fate of kingdoms. This is a compliment. Baker lifts the tension notch by notch until domestic tragedies are as affecting as tsunamis, instead of ratcheting the stakes up artificially with death and politics. And she measures character development in fathoms instead of meters. It takes at least a third of the book to finish setting up the sisters’ backstories and circumstances, but this process isn’t at all tedious. When it’s done, and the action of the book truly begins, the reader understands multiple dimensions in each new development.
Shannon, the youngest sister, has drifted wide-eyed through the aughties, trying to be a journalist and build a family. Both attempts are failures, but of judgment rather than character. She chases an idealized future that may never have existed, and certainly doesn’t in the twenty-first century. All along, she pines for Ben, a lover from her teen years, and maintains a close bond with her unstable cousin, Jeremy. Paige, the second sister, is the quintessential middle child. She rebels with drinking, drugging, singing in a band, moving to Seattle, tattoos, sleeping with women, refusing all the privilege and belonging of her family. What lies under her surface traits is compelling, though; she finds great peace and satisfaction by toning down her life, depending less on the regard of the wider world—a difficult path for a performer, especially in the age of social media.
Claire, the oldest, suffers from a modern version of Betty Friedan’s Problem That Has No Name. She has organized her adult life to be safe from the kind of pain her mother’s death caused her: found a husband, built a career, had the requisite two children. In her mid-thirties, Claire realizes that she’s locked herself into a box with no inherent meaning. She attempts to break out in the clumsiest way possible—through an affair with a coworker of a different race, crossing multiple lines of propriety at once. She summarizes her fall: “It was everything, and yet it wasn’t enough. What was enough? She’d had enough, that had been her life, and she’d given it away for one small, deep thing.” Or, as Paige interprets the affair, “So this is what happens … when you don’t sleep around before marriage. You confuse sex with the world.”
The back cover summary of this book gives away almost everything there is to know about the plot of this book, but it doesn’t touch on the experience of reading it. Baker prioritizes the subjectivity of her characters, giving each of them a comprehensive voice, making their values conflict interestingly without making any of their perspectives unreasonable. She phrases beautiful ideas in plain prose, often through Paige: “Anyway, she thought, what was wrong with losing our memories, just as we lose ourselves when we die? If we didn’t, the world would be choking in memories, leaving no room for new ones.”
Plus, this book presents a point too infrequently made about adult life: we almost never achieve true joy in the ways we planned or believed we would. For all three sisters, dreams turn out to be either unworkable or, in their achievement, not what makes them happy at all. Paige wanted to be a rock star, but she finds that creating songs for small audiences or no audience at all is a better pursuit. Claire wanted a cookie-cutter life, but it didn’t save her from sorrow. And Shannon? She builds a rare family, a blend of old and new, and learns repeatedly that the tidy sheen over things generally hides unhappiness. In her first marriage, her husband, refusing to speak to her for a week, “still fulfilled his domestic obligations … making the bed, putting the commode seat back down, and one night, making love, although it was not making love, it was like having dutiful sex with a silent ghost.” Each sister finds that living deeply, according to her own lights, is better, even if it makes for a weird life, not at all what any of them expected.
Yet aside from this insight, there is little to catapult this book into the realm of “unforgettable,” or “must-read.” It grapples with the legacy of the South, but incompletely; it concerns itself with workplace feminism, but never at the expense of a character journey. Let this review reflect that While You Were Gone is a good read, a fine study of multiple characters, and a beautifully written book, but that it will not blow your socks off. Perhaps that’s good. Unforgettable books can be exhausting, and winter, even in Chattanooga, tends to chill one’s feet.
While You Were Gone, by Sybil Baker. C&R Press, June 2018. 294 pages. $18.00, paper.
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., The Guardian, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, VIDA, Brevity, The Offing, and elsewhere. She earned a B.A. in film studies & philosophy from Mount Holyoke College and an M.A. in creative writing from California State University, Northridge. She has read many, many books. Born in the American South to a professor of poetry and translation and a U.S. Navy captain, and raised along the East Coast, she now lives where she belongs, in Los Angeles. She blogs at the Fictator.