Alternate Side, by Anna Quindlen*****

alternateside“If nobody can tell the difference between real and fake, who cares if fake is what you’re showing?”

Score another one for Anna Quindlen. Often prodigious writers lapse into formulas, becoming predictable, but not Quindlen, who brings a snappy, original tale to the reader every time. She makes us think, and she makes us like it. Big thanks go to Random House and Net Galley for letting me read it free and early. This book is for sale now.

The story is built around a controversy that develops around that most prized acquisition among financially successful New Yorkers: a parking place. Local ordinances have a Byzantine set of rules involving parking on alternate sides of the street, and the neighborhood’s homeowners are sick to death of going out to move the car. A privately owned parking lot leases spaces, but there aren’t enough to go around, and a seniority system makes some residents intense; think of the rent-controlled apartments that get passed down like family heirlooms, and then you’ll have the general idea.

Ultimately, however, the parking place is metaphor, and perhaps allegory, for other aspects of life that go much deeper, and the way Quindlen unspools it is not only deft, but also funny as hell in places.

New Yorkers will appreciate this novel, but others will too. This reviewer is one of those visitors that Quindlen’s characters regard with scorn, the people that pop into town, gawk, buy things, and then leave again. But I’m telling you that despite the title, this is not just—or even mainly—a book for New Yorkers.

The audience that will love this book hardest is bound to be people like the main characters: white middle-class readers old enough to have grown children. But the take-down of petite bourgeois assumptions and attitudes is sly, incisive, and clever as hell.

At one point I began highlighting, for example, the many ways in which the phrases “you people” and “these people” are wielded.

Here is a final word of caution: if you are contemplating divorce, this may tip you over the brink. On the other hand, maybe that’s just what you need.

Highly recommended to those that love strong fiction and occasionally are visited by that “crazy liberal guilt thing.”

Miller’s Valley, by Anna Quindlen*****

MillersValeyMiller’s Valley is an intimate, poignant story so personal that it is hard to remember that it’s fiction rather than a memoir. Thanks to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC. Though I usually read several DRC’s at a time, this was the one I saved for the end of the day, for that time when the phone stops ringing, the dogs quit barking, the family doesn’t need my attention, and there’s nobody at the front door. During those deep, silent hours I immersed myself into the life of Mimi Miller, hypnotized as if my best friend were perched on the bed spilling out her secrets.

If you love good literary fiction, you have to read this book!

The Millers are a family of working farmers. Day by day, inch by inch, water is claiming their land. Shifty business is going on between a developer, who wants to build and sell a waterfront community in what is now rural land containing farms and woods, and the government, which is interested in increasing the size of the local dam. Visitors come to all land owners in the valley, slick people ready to wheel and deal, threaten and cajole.

The Millers are having none of it.

The reader sees all of this through the eyes of Mary Margaret “Mimi” Miller, who grows up amid the tension, the resistance to the governmental takeover of their land, and the pride…above all, the pride. Her family mucks out the mud when the floods come, and they persevere. They resign themselves to the notion that wall-to-wall carpeting can never happen because water comes into the house so often. You can shovel the muck off of wood or linoleum, but a carpet would be ruined the first time the flood came.

Woven in and out of her story is that of her family members and closest friends, including reclusive Aunt Ruth, her mother’s sister who lives in a separate house on the property. Ruth is agoraphobic, and would not come out of her house if she believed it to be on fire. Ruth says that getting out of the house is “overrated”. We also see her older brother, Eddie, who is “the glory of Miller’s Valley”, the perfect son who goes off to college and makes good; we also follow her other brother Tommy into a host of trouble, trouble, and more trouble.

We view each setting as individual snapshot; she paints it, and we are there. Character development is likewise outstanding. As Mimi grows older, we see the same characters with deeper layers of complexity, just as our understanding of those around us grows fuller and deeper as we age. And as she grows into her adulthood, Mimi becomes so similar to her mother in so many ways that I have to remind myself continually that this is fiction, not memoir.

Quindlen is a veteran writer, and when I started to pass this galley by, I realized it was for a foolish reason: I had been required to read her essays and stories sometimes in teachers’ workshops, and so when I ran across her name, my instinctive response was to associate it with work. But those required-readings were some of the best workshops I ever sat through, and now that I am reading on my own time, I find her novel suits me down to the ground.

And I agree with Mimi’s conclusion that “Maybe everyone stays the same inside.”

Those that love good literary fiction as well as stories of finding ourselves through our heritage will appreciate this beautifully told story as much as I did. It is available for purchase April 5, 2016. Highly recommended.