Books · Family & Friends

Don’t Wait for Summer: Two Wonderful Family Novels to Read Now

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This spring we have been blessed by the publication of two new novels about families. They have much in common and deal with some of the same themes, but are interesting in their differences, as well as in their similarities. The Nest, by Cynthia D’Apprix Sweeny, is a debut for this 55-year-old former copywriter. It follows the fortunes of four upper-middle-class New York siblings. The other book, Miller’s Valley, is the latest entry from veteran writer Anna Qunidlen, and it may be her best yet. Her story is about a very different kind of family: the Millers are lower middle class and live in rural Pennsylvania. Yet both books center on the profound ways one wayward sibling can have an impact on the whole clan.

Quindlen’s story follows her main character, Mary Margaret Miller, known as Mimi, from her childhood in the 1960’s through the present. Her small town, named for her father’s family which  has lived in the same house, farming in the valley for more than 200 years, is under threat from a government water agency that wants to flood the valley and thus needs to buy everyone’s property. Meanwhile, they may be slowly flooding them out anyway by manipulating a local dam, and if residents don’t sell, the threat of property seizure by eminent domain hovers in the air.

Her father, Bud, supplements their small farming income working as the local fixit man. He is the essence of the steady, reliable, common-sense man. His wife, Miriam, is also a rock-solid sort: she is a nurse who works the night shift. Her deep love of her family is belied by her flinty, taciturn demeanor. Bud and Miriam have three children, Mimi, the youngest by 10 years, then Tommy, and Eddie the eldest.

Also living on the farm is Miriam’s sister, Ruth, who occupies the house behind theirs on the property and has mysteriously become a shut-in. There is some kind of “bad blood” between the two sisters, and Miriam never visits, but the others do, bringing her meals and groceries and providing a lifeline to the outside world.

Eddie is a whiz at school and goes off to State college and then a career as an engineer early in the book. Mimi is also in line to be valedictorian, but Tommy is a problem child. He seems barely able to make it through high school, though his native street smarts and natural charm make him irresistible, particularly to girls. By the time he enlists in the service and winds up in Vietnam, he has an illegitimate son, Clifton, after having had a casual encounter with Callie, an ambitious girl who works with Mimi at the local diner.

Though the novel centers on Mimi and her own ambitions to thrive beyond Miller’s Valley, it is full of wonderful supporting characters, like Donald, a sweet boy who lives with his grandparents until his wayward mother reclaims him and whisks him off to California. As children, Donald and Mimi are part of a threesome that includes the precociously cynical LaRhonda Venti, daughter of the local “restaurant czar,” who owns the diner, a steak house, and the McDonald’s out on the highway.

Much of the action takes place during Mimi’s late teens, when, after graduating with honors, she is forced to stay home and go to community college when her father has a debilitating stroke. While her mother works, Mimi must also work at the diner, looking after the farm and Bud. He now spends his days at Ruth’s house, mutely watching TV game shows and soaps, with the occasional visit from Clifton, his grandson. Both Ruth and Bud are trapped, he in his disabled body, and she in her house, made into a prison by her psychological disability.

Central to all is Tommy, who comes home from Vietnam troubled and mentally damaged. His former charm has been hardened, transformed into a talent for manipulation that leads him to a career as the local drug dealer. He is home, and yet lost to them, and both Mimi and her mother mourn his distance from them and his former self. He is overcome in a downward spiral, and Mimi struggles to maintain her forward momentum as she feels her family and Miller’s Valley drowning around her.

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  • Mickey May 13, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    Anne Quindlen’s novels I read with some trepidation because you never know what sorrowful, frightening scenes will be written. I did read Miller’s Valley, excellent book, not too scary or upsetting. I can go get an express copy of The Nest from a branch close to my home. I may do that. Thank you, Dr. Cecilia.

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  • Andrea May 13, 2016 at 10:59 am

    Thanks Cecilia for these great recommendations. I have always loved Anna Quindlan’s writing. So happy to have a new book! Kindle download complete!!

    Reply