A FAMILY DAUGHTER by Maile Meloy
A review of

A Family Daughter

by Maile Meloy

Central question: When a writer is born into a family, is the family finished?
Format: 325 pp., cloth; Size: 8.8" x 5.9"; Price: $24; Publisher: Scribner; Editor: Sarah McGrath; Jacket design: Barbara DeWilde; Jacket photographs by: Dan Bibb and Joe Gallo/Veer; Book design: Kyoko Watanabe; Typeface: Berthold Garamond; Author’s brother: Colin Meloy, lead singer of the Decemberists; Number of “great” novels the author had to read and write reports on in order to earn a blue ten-speed bike from her father at age ten: 10; Representative passage: “Yvette was in pain because Clarissa was in pain because Abby was in pain. Did it never stop?”

Although Liars and Saints, Maile Meloy’s first novel, was an introduction to the Santerre family, telling their story as a saga beginning in World War II and ending in present-day California, and her new novel follows the same family, this time focusing on Abby, the college-aged budding novelist, and her uncle Jamie—Meloy has not created a sequel. Instead, she reframes the same characters and situations inside an entirely new structure: A Family Daughter is a fictionalized version of Meloy’s process of writing Liars and Saints.

A Family Daughter follows Abby as she collects source material, mostly from her family’s secrets, and lays it into her own novel (e.g., Liars) with varying degrees of truth. This suggests that the story of A Family Daughter is the “real” unedited account of the Santerres, while Liars is the fictionalized version, manipulated by Abby’s imagination. It also suggests that Abby is an autobiographical character for Meloy, who, it seems, created elements of the Santerre family out of her own surrounding world. For this reason, reading A Family Daughter is like watching the author criticize her flaws and reveal her techniques.

Toward the end of the book, after her structure is carefully built, Meloy lets the novel collapse on itself. Essentially, her old novel attacks her new novel. When Abby publishes her book, the Santerres (her mother, her aunt, etc.) reject their fictionalized personas and struggle to remember which parts of Abby’s story are fiction and which are based in reality—just as the reader must do. Eventually, the novel’s publication leads to the crumbling of two marriages, a viral outbreak, and the death of the family’s patriarch. As Abby’s boyfriend points out: “Czeslaw Milosz said, ‘When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.’”

All of this sounds metafictional, very much like one of Barth’s novel-inside-a-novels, but actually, on the chapter-to-chapter level, A Family Daughter is more like a satisfying soap opera. It is a string of plot twists, high drama, and endless varieties of sex (i.e. recently-converted-lesbian sex, uncouth class-hopping sex, loss-of-religion sex, extramarital sex, and a substantial amount of incest). Meloy weaves these elements into a massive Robert Altman–like narrative fabric, with more than ten story lines and points of view in progress at any one moment. In fact, the book functions almost like a short-story collection, with individual chapters (and sometimes paragraphs) working as perfectly self-contained units. Here, for example, is an entire story line:

“When she was thirteen, Abby found a letter lying open on the kitchen table, and read it in the automatic way she read anything lying out on the table. It was a letter to her mother, about wanting to make physical love to her again, and how and why, and it was signed by a man Abby knew to be married; his son went to her school.”

Meloy’s talent is completely on display in moments like these. She can penetrate the heart of situations with the directness of the most economical realists. Despite the previous soap-opera reference, her prose is everything a soap opera is not—subtle, intelligent, and clear-headed—and it is this quality that allows her to explore the more complex aspects of fiction (multilayered structures, large casts of characters, numerous forking story lines) without ever overwhelming the reader. In every instance, she selects only the most essential details at the perfect moments. As far as I know, that is the definition of a true storyteller.

—Ross Simonini

Ross Simonini is one third of the band Trespassers William. He is working on a book and an album.

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