There is an unconventional aunt in each of two new family chronicles who simply – and without apology – steals the show.
One is the lovable but highly unstable Aunt Jane in Christine Reilly’s zany debut novel, “Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday” – the other, the acerbic and agoraphobic Aunt Ruth in Anna Quindlen’s deeply affecting eighth novel, “Miller’s Valley.”
Neither aunt is a protagonist, yet each plays a determining hand in the course of her family’s life – one becoming a secret, the other harboring one – their richness found in their profound differences from the norm. Both are featured in novels set initially in an America of the latter 20th century – Quindlen’s starting in the 1960s, on a farm in the country; Reilly’s beginning in the 1980s, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
It is “Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday” that holds all the surprises here, both in character and content, not only speaking a language of its own (and tossing off some of the freshest dialogue and thought this reader has encountered in some time) but also, in what is almost a soundtrack, continuously and effectively referencing song titles of the era (with an emphasis on Bob Dylan).
Even the book’s title – taken from the lyrics to the Beatles’ “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” – has an inviting quality.
Mathilde, its first focus, is a young New York actress who meets Claudio, a music lover and owner of a vinyl store, at a house party – where they go out onto the fire escape. “It’s New York,” Mathilde says. “You get good at being comfortable in tiny and risky places.”
It is also the start of a great romance: “She gave him all the tools he needed to hurt her, and he did the same. Wasn’t that the logic in love?”
Marriage follows, then the birth of two daughters, Natasha and Lucy, and the adoption of a third, Carly, born in South Shanghai. Add to the mix Mathilde’s younger brother Sawyer (who is gay and to whom Mathilde once said, “You’re the only college boy I’ve ever met who owns a vase.”). And Jane.
Jane is the anomaly here, Claudio’s sister, a once beautiful, still intelligent and probably schizophrenic woman who hears voices and, since a childhood trauma, has had difficulty with reality.
“What’s your favorite thing to eat?” Mathilde asks Jane the first time they meet. “Feelings?” replies Jane in her ever-curious and questioning way.
Feelings matter in this perceptive and offbeat book which, although fiction, comes replete with an index and a footnote or two (both quite quirky and seemingly meant for reading rather than use). But if those feelings spawn a certain sentimentality, it is one that works here – and we don’t mind if Natasha, Lucy, Carly and their parents (along with Jane, and Sawyer and his partner, Noah) do a little etching on our souls.
This is particularly so after Lucy, at 17, requires a heart transplant – and “Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday” is largely taken over by Lucy and her sisters. Every universal emotion and particular-to-New York sensibility is pulled into play here as the precocious trio faces a frightening unknown, Reilly telling her tale via vignettes and spelling “Heart” with a capital H while giving God a small g….
Quindlen’s “Miller’s Valley” is also, in this sense, a novel of familial love. It is as well, and despite a slow start, perhaps Quindlen’s finest book to date, presenting a single generation of Millers – and their ancestral farmland – with a simplicity that quietly belies the novel’s strength and depth.
“The whole year passed in front of me on the farm,” muses the novel’s narrator, Mimi Miller. “The cornstalks with yellow edges that meant summer was over and the classroom getting ready to close around you. The pumpkins of October that squatted where the yellow flowers sprouted on the vines in August. The mornings when you could hear the cattle complaining like a bunch of old men with tobacco throats and you knew, you just knew, that it was February and their water trough was frozen solid and you were going to have to go out there with an old shovel…”
Mimi is a sixth-generation Miller of Miller’s Valley – a town that could be anywhere in America’s vast farm country. But this town is staring adversity in the face: Government authorities want to flood the valley, to create a reservoir offering “flood control, water supply, hydroelectric power, and recreation,” all in the name of “progress.”
Residents who won’t sell will see their property taken by eminent domain. Mimi, in high school at the book’s start, is the only child still at home – one brother, Eddie, now a white-collar professional living out of town; the other, Tommy, away in the military (but he will return, psychologically damaged, after time in Vietnam).
“You got to be smart,” Tommy says to Mimi at one point. “You walk around thinking everything’s going to stay the same, you know? But everything changes all the time. Ten, twenty years, this whole place will be different than it is now. It’s like, how come we’re so stupid, to think that things are going to stay the way they are forever?
Then there is Aunt Ruth, sister to Mimi’s mother, Miriam. Aunt Ruth is tucked away in a small house behind the big home on the Miller property – glued to her TV, never venturing forth, depending on others to bring her mail and provisions. Her sister Miriam, who is seven years older and works full time as a nurse, will have nothing to do with her.
Mimi and her father, however, regularly enter Aunt Ruth’s “little homemade prison.” where she fends off suggestions for outings with phrases like, “Don’t count on it” and “Not on your life.”
Mimi also has a friend, LaRhonda, not only rich and spoiled but “she seemed like exactly the kind of person who would go through your underwear drawer and jewelry box and eat all your ice cream while you were out.”
In time, a child named Clifton – fathered by the troubled, often-absent Tommy – will join the family. Sex will come Mimi’s way via a young entrepreneur named Steven. And this is not to mention a grave illness that will beset Mimi’s father or the presence of the ominous Winston Bally, the “government agent” who goes about openly eyeing the farms of Miller’s Valley – which, Mimi comes to suspect, authorities have already secretly started to flood, “deciding that one way to convince people to leave was to drown them little by little…”
There is a tidiness and domesticity here that is deceptive in its depth and complexity, giving us not only a genuine slice of humankind but a palpable sense of time and place. As Mimi herself notices, at her high school graduation party at the farm: “I looked around and it was like I was seeing everything frozen into a still photograph, like I was seeing my whole life but in one of those shots you look at later and think, yeah, that’s what it was like, once upon a time…”
Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday
By Christine Reilly Touchstone 322 pages, $25
By Anna Quindlen Random House 259 pages, $28
Karen Brady is a former columnist for The Buffalo News.