June 09, 2016

Miller's Valley - Anna Quindlen

Random House, April 5, 2016.

Three Stars

I have read several of Quindlen’s novels, and while they are always satisfying, they sometimes seem to be missing that extraordinary element. Although Miller’s Valley ostensibly reaches deep into the psyche of the Miller family, the characters’ emotions still only skim the surface of their potential depth. This certainly wasn’t a five star novel for me, but I did enjoy it and I sped through it.

Most of all, Miller’s Valley is the coming-of-age story of Mimi Miller, as she grows up in a small farming community in the 1960s. Mimi’s family have lived for generations in the valley that bears their name – and for almost as long, the government has been planning to flood the land due to problems with the man-made dam. Because the family, along with their neighbours, live under constant threat of displacement, they seem to place extra value on their combined strength, and connections with one another. The novel is very character driven, with each life defined by the impending loss of the community.

We see most of the story through Mimi’s childhood eyes, with only the odd moment of clarity as she looks back on her past as an adult. She listens to the adults talking and arguing, without a proper understanding of what’s really going on outside her family’s walls – and because she doesn’t know the truth, it is only revealed to the reader as time passes as well. Mimi especially idolizes her oldest brother, but he is drastically changed after his experiences in Vietnam.  While at war, he leaves behind his pregnant girlfriend, and Mimi must grow up fast in order to help raise her new nephew. Meanwhile, she also has an aunt with a terrible secret who refuses to leave her house, and eventually a father who is disabled due to a stroke. Although Mimi has a chance to escape the valley, she stays behind and puts her family first.

Mimi faces the dysfunction of her family with grace and love – she accepts their flaws as normal, which makes her relatable to most readers. Her family has their problems, but they are fairly realistic, and they still represent the most stable, loving force in Mimi’s young life. The importance of home and familial roots is an important theme in this novel, and although the potential flood could wash clean the sins of the past, it will also cause Mimi to be set adrift, with no home to hold her firmly in place.

Mimi is a child narrator, but she does look back at events with some hindsight and wisdom. I did feel that her narration lacked the emotion that would have accompanied the many dramatic events she experienced, but that could be because it is a reflection of the past as opposed to being written in the present tense. More than anything, Miller’s Valley is a simply told yet meaningful family chronicle. In spite of its difficult content, I found it to be a comfortable, cozy read.

I received this novel from Random House and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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