Mimi Miller, the narrator and protagonist of Anna Quindlen’s stunning new novel, “Miller’s Valley,” knows her mother is someone special. “There are just some people like that,” Mimi says. “Everyone pays attention to what they say, even if they don’t even know them well or like them much.”
None of the Millers, male or female, has much real power. But Mimi’s mother, Miriam, a nurse at the local hospital, has plenty of strength. She raises her three children — Mimi and older brothers Tommy and Eddie — on the shoestring budget from her salary and the “fix-it” jobs of her husband, Bud. (He also has a few cows and some acres of corn, but it’s not exactly a working farm).
Their inherited land and much of the rest of Miller’s Valley lie under threat of flooding because of decades-old engineering miscalculations. As the book begins, 11-year-old Mimi is approached by one of the men who plan to create a new reservoir. These bureaucrats want to relocate the families on several thousand acres and flood their land. For Mimi, it’s an early lesson that the ground beneath her feet is not solid. She and everyone around her copes with this impending threat differently.
When Bud refuses even to think about taking government money, Miriam realizes she must act to protect her only daughter’s welfare. That this resolve coincides with Mimi’s sexual awakening might have caused a terrible break, except that Miriam is already overwhelmed by trying to care for the various members of her family.
The way the story jumps around and collapses time can be disconcerting. Mimi is narrating from old age, and just as the eventual flooding of the farmland jumbles everything in its wake, Mimi’s mind floods with scenes and moments in a way that makes sense to her but not always to us. For example, she spends a great deal of time talking about her high school love, Steven, but little time describing another man who will be very important to her.
Fortunately, this doesn’t distract from the matriarchal theme at the heart of “Miller’s Valley.” Miriam pushes her smart daughter to consider college, and other women — a teacher, a doctor a benefactor — will raise Mimi up past the raging waters that swirl in her heart.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
On Monday at 7 p.m., Anna Quindlen will be in conversation with Connie Schultz at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-364-1919. politics-prose.com.
By Anna Quindlen
Random House. 257 pp. $28