Maile Meloy's second novel, A Family Daughter, is a thickly plotted sequel to her first, Liars and Saints. Like the first book, it's a speedy multigenerational chronicle of the Santerre family—in 336 pages, A Family Daughter covers several decades in the crisis-ridden lives of about a dozen characters. And like Liars and Saints, it displays Meloy's talents in full flower: quick, exacting characterizations; a spareness of style that keeps the chapters short (there are 85 in the new book), the episodes focused, the tone temperate and the plot momentum chugging; and the ability to switch point-of-view quickly and often without sacrificing the arc of the story or the narrative's cohesiveness.
Meloy, the UCI MFA grad whose first book of short stories, 2002's Half in Love, was already the product of a young writer in impressive command of her craft, is certainly the real thing: a natural storyteller overflowing with material she's compelled to tell, a compassionate observer of her characters' suffering, and a subtle stylist forging an artistic path that isn't quite like anyone else's. And she's being rewarded for it with Guggenheims, foundation grants, enough sales to put her on the lower rungs of a few best-seller charts, the plaudits of literary major-dudes like Philip Roth and Richard Ford, and warm, lovely reviews from some big critics. In a publishing environment screaming for more and more pink-jacketed chick-lit, or books with easy tie-ins to Hollywood, or whatever else promises a quick return on investment, Meloy's burgeoning career says to that pitifully small contingent of folks out there who care about contemporary fiction, "See, there are still good solid quiet writers out there! See, the book world isn't going to hell!"
It feels a little churlish, then, to raise an index finger of complaint, because I don't think Meloy is quite as good as everybody has claimed, or—what am I saying?—as good as I've said she is in my own reviews of her two earlier books. What I previously praised as one of Meloy's innovations—that speed-epic quality to her family sagas, that ability to cram in about four fat novels' worth of character and incident into a relatively short, streamlined narrative—is, I'm beginning to suspect, the sign of a novelist who's a little afraid of her own material, who spins out, centrifugally, more and more character and plot out of a fear of dwelling too long or too much on the abiding issues at the heart of her work.
In the opening 100 pages of this novel, for instance, a mother, Clarissa Santerre, runs off to Hawaii one summer to find herself (it's the 1970s . . .), abandoning her husband, Henry, as well as her 7-year-old daughter, Abby. The girl is shipped off to Hermosa Beach and her grandmother Yvette, who enlists the help of her son Jamie to entertain and distract his little niece through a troubling period. A decade passes ("Time went by imperceptibly" is one of those phrases Meloy is forced to use to span events in this book), during which Clarissa becomes a lesbian, Abby goes to college and Henry dies in a car wreck. Uncle Jamie is reenlisted to help Abby through the trauma of her father's death, but when he comes to visit her at UC San Diego, uncle and niece end up in bed together. But it's more complicated than uncle-niece incest, because during a therapy session Jamie discovers that Yvette might not be his mother after all, but his grandmother, and that the woman he thinks is his sister may actually be his mother. Which would make the incest cousin-to-cousin, which is marginally less awful than uncle-niece incest but still awful, so they call it off, but not before Jamie, in bed one last time with Abby, suggests that maybe Abby should write a novel about the crazy events of their lives. Jamie runs off to San Francisco, where he falls in love with a blond socialite named Saffron (an insufferable Paris Hilton type) who cheats on him at every turn with her friend Martin, which enrages Jamie but not enough to leave her—or even prevent him from promising to marry her. Meanwhile, Abby falls into a major depression, during which she has sex with a T.A. named Peter in a campus building and then begins writing her crazy novel. Then Saffron hears from Josephine, her rich mother living in Argentina who is slowly losing her mind to dementia and needs help with a child she has adopted from Romania. Saffron asks Jamie to go to Argentina to help her, which he agrees to do, though he makes sure to ask Abby to come along too, so that Abby—who's still depressed and confused about her dad's death, her incest with Jamie, and her new relationship with her T.A.—can (odd request) help him explain his relationship to Saffron.
Now, Meloy's tone being as modulated as it is, none of this comes off as ridiculous as it sounds in summary. Still, in a hundred pages, we have abandonment, sexual conversion, a father's death, incest, depression, an emerging secret about a character's real parentage, neurotic sexual acting out, cheating, dementia, the blossoming of an artistic sensibility, and enough desperation to make characters travel to other hemispheres to visit people they don't even know. In the rest of the novel, there will be three more deaths, a contested will, a Parisian playboy, a Hungarian prostitute who turns out to be the real mother of Josephine's adopted son, a former Jesuit-turned-lawyer-turned-addict who breaks up one of the Santerre marriages before succumbing again to drugs, and the publication of Abby's novel, which causes all manner of familial havoc, since it unveils a bunch of family secrets and throws the Santerres into utter disarray at a disastrous Christmas reunion.
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 clichs 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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