Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Anna Quindlen’

Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen

I’ve been on a Anna Quindlen reading-fest recently, with Alternate Side the latest of her books to fall into my lap.

I’ve enjoyed everything of Anna Quindlen’s I’ve read to date, finding her style to be gentle and charming, but was disappointed by Alternate Side‘s tense and aggressive story of a unravelling middle-aged New York couple and their neighbours.

On the surface, Nora and Charlie have an idyllic life. Charlie is an investment banker, while Nora is the director of a Jewellery Museum. Nora and Charlie live in a tight-knit neighbourhood and attend block Christmas parties and barbecues. They have a handyman who works for everyone on their block, a cleaner of their own (heaven!!!) and Charlie has recently gained a car parking position on the block, which is of enormous importance to his self-worth and happiness. Their children are at university and doing well.

There are underlying tensions, though. Charlie wants to move away from New York, but Nora loves being a New Yorker and won’t consider leaving. A neighbour George, is the self-appointed manager of everything that happens on the block and his officiousness is a constant irritation to Nora and the other residents. Another neighbour, Jack, is just plain nasty. One day Jack loses his temper with Ricky, the handyman, for blocking access to the car park and attacks Ricky with a golf club, breaking his leg in several places. The block occupants are divided by their loyalties when Jack is arrested, some taking Jack’s side and others seeing him as a violent criminal.

I struggled to relate to Nora and her problems. I don’t know if this was because she lived such a privileged, inner-city life which is so unlike anything I would want for myself, or if it was because she was so unhappy with her lot. Admittedly, Nora’s daughter was a brat, she and her husband no longer wanted the same things from life and her job was no longer satisfying, but she also had a lot to be grateful for and wasn’t. Alternate Sides kept making me think of middle-aged men and women’s ranting a way through their mid-life crisis.

I’ll probably go back to some earlier books by Anna Quindlen in the hope of finding more of the serene style of Miller’s Valley.

Object Lessons by Anna Quindlen


I’ve been happily making my way through best-selling author Anna Quindlen’s works after coming across Miller’s Valley a few years ago. Object Lessons was this author’s first book.

Object Lessons has the same quiet, gentle style that I recognised from this author’s other books, with strong and likeable female characters.

The main character of Object Lessons is thirteen-year old Maggie Scanlan, who has to come to terms with changes within her family, her neighbourhood and her friendship group over the course of a summer, finding the strength of character to stand up to peer pressure in her group of friends and against her bullying older cousin.  A turning moment for Maggie is learning that her parents are people as well as her parents.

Maggie is the child of an Italian mother, Connie and an Irish father, Tommy, who met and fell in love, then married very quickly after Connie became pregnant with Maggie. Tommy’s family is ruled by his father, John Scanlan, a successful businessman who keeps everyone in the family in line with his forceful personality and his money. Tommy is the only one to have escaped his father slightly, having married Connie, bought the house of his choice and running his own business, although that business was funded by John Scanlan.

Connie is also a strong character. Connie is pregnant and has her own issues to deal with, having lost touch emotionally with Tommy and feeling attracted to a man who she knew as a teenager. Sitting beneath everything else is Connie’s isolation within Tommy’s overtly racist family.

Object Lessons is set during the late 1960’s or early 1970’s, a time of great social change. Pregnant women weren’t frowned on for smoking or getting drunk, but not wearing a hat to church was a scandal. A young female character left home to share a flat with a friend and have boyfriends stay overnight (which her parents would never have suspected unless she were to fall pregnant). Seeing these times through Maggie’s eyes was fascinating.

The plot of Object Lessons was perhaps a little messier than Anna Quindlen’s later books, but it was still enjoyable and I look forward to making my way through her other books.


Still Life With Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen


I think I’ve got a bit of a reading-crush on Anna Quindlen. I read Miller’s Valley earlier this year and loved it, then followed up with Still Life With Bread Crumbs, which I also enjoyed. I’m obviously not alone, my copy of this book says Anna Quindlen is a “#1 New York Times bestselling author.”

Still Life with Bread Crumbs is a very different book to Miller’s Valley, although both stories are about what their homes mean to people. Still Life With Bread Crumbs is the story of a photographer, Rebecca Winter, who lets out her New York apartment and goes to live in the back of beyond in an attempt to survive financially.

Rebecca is 60 and feels as if she is a has-been. Her work, particularly a series of photos named ‘Still Life With Bread Crumbs’ which she took of the aftermath of a dinner party, was enormously successful, to the point of Rebecca almost becoming an icon, but of more recent years commercial interest in her photographs has dried up. Her husband has long since left her for another woman, (although he was no great loss in my opinion).

Living in the back of beyond after being a New Yorker all of her life, Rebecca befriends a dog, a chatty café owner and a roofer named Jim who regularly rescues her from rip-off artists, raccoons in her roof and, most importantly, supplies her with venison. Jim also gets Rebecca a job photographing birds for the state wildlife authority. Their friendship eventually becomes a love affair.

Also in the back of beyond, Rebecca rediscovers her passion for art, for life and for love. As a result, she sorts herself out financially and emotionally. This review is coming out a bit soppy, but Still Life With Bread Crumbs is not a soppy book. I’m just a soppy reviewer.

Still Life With Breadcrumbs had the same quiet feeling that I enjoyed so much in Miller’s Valley. The characters in both novels understand that life has slow moments and they don’t try to change that. There were things about the book which annoyed me, for example; Rebecca’s finances. She doesn’t know where her next ten dollars is coming from half the time, but she owns an apartment in New York. Maybe this is easy for me to say, but surely downsizing would have solved all of her problems. Also, there was the age thing between Rebecca and Jim. She is 60 and he is 44. Not a big deal I would have thought, but Rebecca carries on a bit before succumbing to Jim’s charms.

While reading, I realised that while I understood that I was reading fiction, I believed in the art work. I actually intended to ‘Google’ Rebecca’s work, ‘Still Life With Bread Crumbs’. I liked believing in the story and will continue looking out for other books by Anna Quindlen.



Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen


I knew as soon as I saw Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen that I was going to love this book. The line, ‘#1 NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author’ across the top of the cover was a strong recommendation, and the cover art evoked in me a sense of place that suits the title. Mostly it was just a feeling, though, which usually expresses itself by my getting the urge to give a book a little hug when I pick it up.*

Miller’s Valley is a story about belonging. The narrator, Mimi Miller, understands the need to belong to a particular place and community as her family have lived and farmed in Miller’s Valley for generations.

Mimi’s story starts in her childhood, during the 1960s. Her story, which takes place over the next 60 years, includes that of her parents, her charming but troubled brother, an aunt who never leaves her house, friends and the Miller’s Valley community. Mimi knows who she is and where she fits in to her world.

Changes are coming because the town of Miller’s Valley is dying. The nearby dam is failing and regularly floods the town and surrounding farms. Eventually all of the properties in the valley will be bought by the government under eminent domain, which is known as compulsory acquisition in Australia, in order to create a bigger dam. Some of the residents of Miller’s Valley are actively fighting to keep their homes, while others are resigned to the fact that sooner or later, their town will be drowned.

Mimi’s parents are hard working and resilient, with Mimi’s mother particularly important in shaping Mimi’s character. Mimi’s mother has a strong character and high expectations of her daughter. She favours Mimi’s brother Tommy, although it is clear from the beginning of the book that he will break all of their hearts.

The story is quiet and slow, which suits the setting. Mimi tells the story in a series of truths that made me feel as if I knew the other characters too, as well as I know my own family and friends and community.

Mimi works hard, at home and at school, and when she is old enough, waitressing in a diner. She falls in love and finishes school. Life continues.

This book made me nostalgic for my own version of ‘Miller’s Valley’, which is the place where I grew up. This is where my heart is and where I dream about. Unlike Miller’s Valley, my home still exists, although there have been changes. Several paddocks on the edge of the town are now housing estates, and a few old fishing shacks pulled down with flashy new houses built in their place. I have a few family members and friends living there, but not many. Things change. I haven’t lived there in over thirty years and probably never will again, but it will always be my home.

I haven’t read any books by Anna Quindlen before, but as I enjoyed Miller’s Valley so much, I’m delighted to learn she has written quite a few others. I’ll be making my way through her list sooner rather than later.

* I must look around at other people in bookshops or the library sometime to see if anyone else hugs their books too.


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