is a 2016 fiction novel by novelist and journalist Anna Quindlen. It made the New York Times Bestseller list. Quindlen’s story is a detailed and emotional look at a family in Pennsylvania beginning with the 1960s. A coming-of-age-story at its center, protagonist Mimi Miller, narrating from four decades later, recalls her life as a teenager up to her twenties. Her hometown, Miller’s Valley, is essential to understanding her life, highlighting the themes of places changing, the power of geography, the toxicity of family secrets, the dangers of gossip, the flaws of marriage, the inequalities of friendship, and the risks of love.
Mimi Miller, a descendant of the original founding family in Miller’s Valley who settled during the 1820s, is 11-years-old in the 1960s when everything is on the precipice of change. She lives with her parents Miriam and Buddy, her two older brothers Tommy and Eddie who she looks up to, and her Aunt Ruth. Ruth harbors a dark secret and thus never leaves her house, located behind Mimi’s. The farm they live on has been with the Millers for 200 years, and Mimi can barely imagine what life is like outside of it, nor does she desire to leave.
Miller’s Valley has recently become more prone to flooding after the government builds the nearby Roosevelt Dam. The government retrospectively realizes they need more water and must flood Miller’s Valley. Offering to either resettle or alternatively force out all residents, the government is unsuccessful, and they stay put. The government insists that the new is better than the old – a tension that runs throughout the novel – but they refuse for years, until seemingly spontaneously, Mimi’s mother gives in, announcing: ““Let the water cover the whole damn place.”
Mimi deeply desires to stay. Her father feels the same way and is inseparable from the land. Ruth, of course, doesn’t want to leave, as she doesn’t even want to leave her house. But as the government allows the river to slowly flow in, the ground gets wetter and wetter. Tensions rise, secrets are exposed, and the life they knew inherently changes.
Before the inevitable flooding, things begin to dramatically change for their family. Tommy joins the Marines and Eddie becomes an engineer in Philadelphia. When Tommy returns from Vietnam, he takes up drink and drugs, eventually landing in jail. He has a child that he barely acknowledges. Eddie returns to the area to oversee a new development near Miller’s Valley, hoping the residents will agree to move there after it’s flooded. He feels like a visitor rather than a close family member.
Meanwhile, Mimi excels at school, and is offered a number of scholarships. An important part of Mimi’s story during her early twenties is her love life. She has a relationship with Tommy’s older friend named Steven, but is hurt by him when he is caught cheating. She has an abortion which takes an emotional toll on her, especially considering the small-town setting. She doesn’t discuss it with anyone.
Her plans to go to a state college are delayed when her father has a stroke. She goes to community college instead, waitressing on the side, and takes care of Tommy’s neglected child. Her father dies, and Tommy does not attend his funeral. She eventually receives a scholarship to attend medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and decides to attend, leaving Miller’s Valley behind.
While there, she reencounters a childhood friend named Donald, who she eventually marries. After a terrible flood, Mimi returns to the family farm to help her mother move, as residents finally begin to leave. Mimi is shocked by this, but her mother explains that, without their family, the valley is no longer home – a question central to the novel and an important theme.
The end of the novel moves forward in time at a rapid pace. Years later, with her own family, Mimi agrees with her mother’s thesis that place does not dictate ‘home.’ Tommy has disappeared. Her family’s dynamic has shifted and changed. During the epilogue, Mimi recalls cleaning out Ruth’s attic before the flood. She shockingly discovers the mummified corpse of a baby, and to protect her family from the authorities as they clear out the town, hides it down a well. It is implied that it is Ruth’s baby, her dark secret and reason for reclusiveness, and it is further implied that it came out of a relationship with Mimi’s father Buddy, but this is not confirmed. In the end, Mimi realizes that she doesn’t miss Miller’s Valley, because without the people and its specific place in time, it essentially doesn’t exist as a physical place, but rather a place in her heart.
In Quindlen’s novel, change is inevitable whether the characters want it or not. How they deal with change reveals who they really are and who they desire to become. Mimi’s mother faces change head on, and her originally cryptic statement at the beginning of the novel becomes clear to Mimi by the end: to avoid change, to try and live in the past, is dangerous. Aunt Ruth is an example of this, a physical embodiment of negatively coping with change, and, as is later revealed, is stuck living in the shadow of a dark secret. Change also helps Mimi discover her identity outside of her family and her farm. Motifs and symbols such as water, an inherently adaptive material, exemplify these ideas. Their town is buried in water, buried in change, as if it never existed. But for Mimi, it does exist in an abstract way. As Mimi says, “No one ever leaves the town where they grew up, even if they go.”