In so many ways, I loved this book…as I hoped and somewhat expected, being a Quindlen fan. It is filled with people who are so well-developed, they were incredibly real to me as I read, thanks to Quindlen’s familiar skill at developing characters in her “family fiction.”
The protagonist, known as Mimi (real name Mary Margaret), is a 65-year old woman with a boatload of memories and secrets…as is the case in many families. She grew up in a river valley, on a farm that has been in her family for a century or more. The story unfolds in a way that builds suspense, and makes us wonder about the upcoming “big reveal” – clearly, there is a huge secret buried deeply. How else to explain the family dynamics: Mimi’s parents live in a house on the farm, subsisting on a meager income (selling corn at a roadside stand, plus Ruth’s mother’s salary from her nursing job). Mimi’s maternal aunt Ruth lives in a separate house behind the house where Mimi’s family lives – and the sisters never speak to each other. Plus, Ruth NEVER leaves her house. Mimi’s family handles everything for Ruth, including meals, shopping, etc. And as time goes on, Mimi’s father spends more and more time with Ruth…
Mimi had two brothers, Tom (favored by her mother) who was much older and Eddie. The family basically supports Ruth both financially and in every other way, cooking for her, shopping, etc. Tom went into the military, and Mimi missed him terribly: “Since he’d left the house had seemed like a baby’s rattle with all the jingly things inside gone.”
We learn early on a bit about Mimi’s character and the fact that there is something that will be revealed in this story, as she says “It’s so easy to be wrong about the things you’re close to. I know that now. I learned that then. “ Mimi describes people in vivid terms, as when speaking about her friends LA Rhonda and Donald: “Donald’s personality was like vanilla ice cream, and LA Rhonda was like that weird Neapolitan kind, with the layers of strawberry and vanilla and chocolate, that turned a tan color when it melted in your bowl…” Both LaRhonda and Donald figure in Mimi’s life throughout the story, and Mimi is clearly less than impressed with the adult LaRhonda, as she describes the way that “Even at Little League she had on expensive sunglasses and a purse that looked like it was made out of unborn calves.” I swear, I KNOW many of these people! And I love Quindlen’s ability to bring out the common weirdness of townspeople and the unique weirdness in a family. I once had a friend who said “if you think you know a family that is the perfect sort of Donna Reed family, you just don’t know them well enough.” Perhaps. Certainly the Millers have more than their share of hidden relationships, events, secrets, etc.
Their valley is a prime target for development, and “the government” aims to dam the river and flood their valley. The view of the development prospect is clear as Mimi describes new housing that has gone in, possibly a portent of what is to come for their land: “Thirty-five acres had been clear-cut. They’d done what developers always did, turned it into a tree desert.”
With all the weirdness and family drama that surrounds her, Mimi might have become one of those lost souls who are trapped in ongoing misery. Fortunately for her, she has a teacher who encourages her to aim for something beyond a life in the Valley. There is way too much potential to spoil the story, but suffice it to say Mimi makes astonishing discoveries and unravels secrets about her family. In the end, she concludes, “No one ever leaves the town where they grew up, not really, even if they go.”
Lots of questions arise: what is the nature of truth, especially when family members each have their own version? Should some secrets remain buried? Is it the responsibility of a capable family member to remain and care for family members who seemingly cannot care for themselves? Or is it right for them to go off and make their own life?
Would be a good book club pick, I think. It’s not heavy literature, but it is very enjoyable, and thought-provoking. Highly recommended. Five stars, and thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy in return for my honest review.