In her eighth novel, a coming-of-age story set in rural Pennsylvania, Quindlen (Still Life with Bread Crumbs, 2014, etc.) focuses on a young woman buffeted by upheavals in her personal life and a threat to the farmland her family has owned for generations.
Mimi Miller is 11 when we meet her, a farm girl who sells corn by the side of the road and, at night, eavesdrops on her parents’ conversations by way of a heating vent. Her mother is a nurse, strong-willed and unsentimental, her father a genial man who farms and fixes things. Mimi has two older brothers, the stalwart Edward and the wastrel Tommy, as well as an agoraphobic aunt who lives in another house on the Millers’ property. Government officials are lobbying the Millers and their neighbors to relocate so their flood-prone area can be turned into a reservoir. Meanwhile, the charming but feckless Tommy enlists in the Marines, then goes seriously astray when he returns home. Mimi, by contrast, excels at schoolwork—science in particular—and finds an ardent, if not entirely appropriate, suitor. Quindlen, a Pulitzer Prize–winning essayist and former reporter, writes with great empathy, making you care deeply about her characters. Her language is simple but true: “Sometimes there are things that you’ve rehearsed so many times, thought about so often, that when they happen it’s like they already happened a long long time ago,” Mimi says of her father’s passing. Perhaps there is a bit too much summing up in the book’s final chapter, but it still manages to be quite stirring, in an Our Town sort of way.
There are familiar elements in this story—the troubled brother, the eccentric aunt, a discovery that hints at a forbidden relationship—but they are synthesized in a fresh way in this keenly observed, quietly powerful novel.