By Sandra P. Angulo
March 03, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

The author of the gripping 1986 best-seller ”The Good Mother” is in full flower in her fourth novel. Written in Miller’s usual calm, lyrical prose style, ”While I Was Gone” introduces Jo Becker, a 52-year-old veterinarian content with her sexually gratifying, conversationally compatible marriage to a pastor in a pleasant New England village until she enters a midlife dark woods. Jo’s siren is Eli Mayhew, new in town — a man she used to know decades ago, when her true self was still in formation and the two were members of a hippie-era communal house. It was a time when this reflective woman kept big secrets about herself from her roommates. It was a time that culminated in a gruesome murder, the residue of which she has concealed from her own family — including her three grown daughters — all these years.

Eli may be more cipher than fully fleshed character, a diablo ex machina in the otherwise excellently paced, surprisingly pared-down action. But that, in a way, is Miller’s astute point: It takes so very little to let rot creep into even the healthiest of relationships while one is emotionally gone, self-involved with desire and deceiving oneself about it, too. And it hardly matters who plays the serpent in the garden. Once betrayal has done its poisonous work, Miller tenderly explains in this deeply affecting story, forgiveness is excruciating — and crucial.

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