“Miller’s Valley” by Anna Quindlen; Random House (257 pages, $28)
When society’s volume seems cranked to 11, there’s something to be said about a quiet book. Understated almost to a fault, Anna Quindlen’s eighth novel pulls together themes of rural life, Vietnam, mental illness, eminent domain, abortion and ambition in prose that never shouts, yet still explores a family’s depths. We meet Mimi Miller as a child growing up in Miller Valley, the family history flowing across the land as surely as the ever-flooding creek. A plan to dam the creek for a recreational lake seems at first an imminent threat. But years pass.
The dam’s inevitability, though, is one force that drives Mimi’s mother and her older brother, broken from Vietnam, to urge her to aim high, to leave. How Mimi slowly does just that and the consequences that follow form the low arc of this book.
Quindlen, ever the adept observer of human nature, rings true when describing Mrs. Miller’s childhood friend coming to visit with her husband. “My father and Mr. Langer were friends in that way that men are who get dragged into a friendship by their wives.” But she’s also capable of writing that “charm is like tinsel without the tree. What’s tinsel without the tree? Shredded tinfoil.”
Pace is a curious thing here, for while most of the book meanders like a wandering stream, the pace in its final pages picks up to an almost dizzying degree, complete with an unimaginable plot twist. Maybe this is a metaphor for the floodwaters finally rushing into the valley. I’d love to credit Quindlen with such a tactic. But the summing up feels more like it simply was time to close out the story, like Mimi’s middle age simply wasn’t interesting enough to explore.
“Miller’s Valley” is a lovely read — the dialogue never disappoints — but in the end, it’s more creek than reservoir.
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