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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Today's New Release: MILLER'S VALLEY by Anna Quindlen

3 Stars
The narrator is Mary Margaret Miller (Mimi) who recounts her life beginning in the 1960s from the age of eleven.  She grows up in Miller’s Valley, a small Pennsylvania town, where her family has lived for generations.  The government plans to turn this flood-prone area into a reservoir to improve the local dam; that plan would mean the family farm would be flooded.  Mimi discusses these events and the people who shape her life.

It is the characters who are most interesting.  There’s Mimi’s mother Miriam who is resilient and strong-willed; Mimi’s father Bud who is genial but stubborn; Mimi’s black sheep brother who tries to escape his home town by joining the military; and Mimi’s agoraphobic aunt Ruth who lives on a house on the property.  Mimi emerges as responsible, thoughtful, independent, and determined. 

Though the characters certainly emerge as individuals, they form an ordinary family.  What happens to them could happen to anyone.  Certainly what happens to Mimi is not unusual; she describes her schooling, her first romance, her hopes for the future, and her struggles.  Most readers will be able to identify with her, at least to some extent.    Mimi grows up in a small rural community, her family does not have a lot of money, and she finds herself torn between family responsibilities and personal ambitions – these are similarities I found I shared with her.

Despite the fact that Mimi’s life was like mine in my formative years, the book just didn’t emotionally resonate with me.  Perhaps the problem is that Mimi is narrating her story from the perspective of 50 years after the fact so the time distance creates an emotional distancing.  Another issue is that the ending is too neat and too positive. 

I also expected Mimi to mature more.  She certainly learns some family secrets, but she seems to learn few lessons, though she emphasizes that she learned from her mother the advantages of “knowing but not saying . . . a way you can let things happen without acknowledging them.”   This is hardly a profound lesson.

I live in an area near the St. Lawrence Seaway; nearby is a museum dedicated to the Lost Villages, the ten communities which were permanently submerged by the construction of the Seaway in 1958.  For this reason I was especially interested in the reactions of the novel’s various inhabitants to the increasing likelihood that their homes would be flooded.  Mimi’s observation that “no one ever leaves the town where they grew up” is ever so accurate and applies both to those whose hometowns are destroyed and those who choose to leave.

This is not a difficult read; it could perhaps be described as a quiet book which exudes the comfort of home.  It has well-drawn characters, but it did not engage me emotionally.

Note:  I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.