A Family Daughter
In her lovely and rhapsodically received 2003 debut novel, Liars and Saints, Maile Meloy offered a sparkling contemporary revamp of that ponderous literary relic: the multigenerational family saga. With her smooth, elliptical account of the Santerre clan — presided over by guilt-plagued Catholic matriarch Yvette and her laconic husband, Teddy — Meloy covered 50 years of Southern California domestic life, encompassing wildly divergent points of view and some genuinely shocking family secrets in an admirably economical 260 pages of honed levelheaded prose.
Readers charmed by the grace and simplicity of Liars and Saints may approach its sequel, a metafictional reworking of the same material, with dismay. Once again, Meloy unspools the story of the Santerres, but in A Family Daughter everything seems slightly — and sometimes not so slightly — askew. If it’s been a few years since you read Liars and Saints, you may wonder if your memory is playing tricks. It’s not. Meloy’s perplexing new book is intended as the ”real” story of the Santerres, before (and after) one of them adapts the family history into a novel: Liars and Saints.
The Santerre family author is Abby, grandchild of Yvette and Teddy, neglected daughter of flaky sometime lesbian Clarissa, and incestuous lover of uncle Jamie (Clarissa’s brother). In a memorable Liars and Saints seduction scene, Jamie woos virginal Abby on a moonlit Santa Barbara beach just outside the club where Yvette and Teddy are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, a momentous one-time liaison that Meloy makes both troubling and tender, and which leaves Abby pregnant. In the new version, a sexually experienced Abby initiates the affair in the hall of her student apartment, and the tetchy relationship continues, off and on, indefinitely. Abby does not become pregnant, nor does she die of cancer shortly after giving birth to Jamie’s son, as she does in Liars and Saints.
Instead, Abby begins working on a novel, weaving together scandalous bits of her biography with wild guesses about her family history and outright inventions (like her own death), twisting and embellishing the raw stuff of life, as novelists — and, sadly, some memoirists — do. Her relatives read her manuscript with understandable trepidation, and the volume begins to play an unpredictable role in their lives, sparking at least one affair and leading inadvertently to a death.
But Meloy is not an idea-driven novelist, and rather than teasing out the provocative questions she raises about the relationship of fiction to life, she turns compulsively back to human-scale narrative — in this case not all of it of the highest quality. Since the Santerres’ best tales were crystallized in Liars and Saints, she pads the sequel with soapy subplots and an ever-expanding web of random new characters, among them a spoiled seductress named Saffron, a conniving Hungarian prostitute, and an ex-beauty dying on an Argentinean ranch. She may have rigged up a mighty clever postmodern game, but she’s written a mediocre sudsy melodrama.