Selling Out

Talented new novelist Maile Meloy needs to burn her bridges

Liars and Saints is as complex/nutty as this too, but when I first read it I thought Meloy was devising a new sort of family saga, which skimped on deep characterization to emphasize the elusive, chimerical nature of the book's people, who seemed to skip from crisis to crisis without fully absorbing the impact of events. Now I just think Meloy writes too much plot in order to avoid probing her characters' psyches. Some of the characterizations are simply too sketchy, relying on clich├ęs to help us get a sense of who they are: that's particularly true of non-Santerres like Saffron, Josephine and Peter. And a character like Jamie lurches from one improbable romantic entanglement to another—from Abby to Saffron to the Hungarian prostitute—in ways that stretch credulity to nearly absurd degrees.

The novel ultimately organizes itself around the topic of how Abby's novel about her family—that would be Liars and Saints—affects them all, which sets up an intriguing relationship between Liars and the current book that recalls the metafictional interplay of Philip Roth's Zuckerman novels. And like those Roth books, A Family Daughter ends up being about the guilt a writer feels about exploiting her own family history for art. Fair enough. But frankly, Meloy doesn't exploit enough: she needs to press harder into her characters, reveal more about their motivations, desires, guilts. "A writer is always selling somebody out," Joan Didion famously wrote, and Meloy needs to embrace that brutal truth.

A Family Daughter by Maile Meloy; Scribner's. Hardcover, 336 pages, $24.

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