Liars and Saints, by Maile Meloy

Purchased at Chapters.ca

It was almost exactly a year ago that Tony at Tony’s Book World convinced me that I should read Maile Meloy. Her 2009 short story collection Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, had already attracted my attention by appearing on some prize lists. I tend to agree with Tony’s taste in short stories (too few bloggers read and review collections), so when he included it in his 2009 Top Ten, I figured it was time to take the plunge. I read the volume in early January; it was so good that it made my Top Ten for 2010 a few weeks back.

Meloy’s back catalogue is limited to two story collections and two novels (she’s only 38 after all) so I applied some unusual discipline in not immediately reading it all. Liars and Saints, first published in 2003, was her first novel — while it is not quite up to the exceptionally high standard of Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, it is a very good book nonetheless.

Liars and Saints is an American family saga that opens in the closing months of World War II and ends in the opening days of the current century. While it extends through four generations, “saga” is a bit of a misnomer because Meloy manages to accomplish all that in 260 tightly-written pages — the writerly discipline she shows in never wasting a word in her short stories extends to her novel.

We meet Teddy and Yvette Sancerre as they marry in a formal Mass in Santa Barbara, California shortly before he is shipped out as a U.S. Air Force pilot to the closing months of WWII in the Pacific theatre:

It was a quick wedding so Teddy could ship out, but they went two days later to a dance at the beach club where she met Teddy’s commanding officer at the bar.

“You can’t leave this girl so soon,” the officer said, looking at Yvette. She was wearing the ivory dress she was married in, because it had taken her a long time to make it, and she wasn’t going to wear it just once. It suited her, she knew — it set off her slimness and the way her dark hair curled under at her shoulders — and she blushed at how the officer looked at her.

Teddy said, “Sir?”

The officer laughed, and shook Teddy’s hand again, and said congratulations on the wedding, and then Teddy was able to smile.

They both thought the CO was only joking, but he wasn’t. He assigned Teddy to a squadron training at home, so he could stay a few months with Yvette. The Marine Corps put the new couple up at the Biltmore with the rest of the officers — the guests had all fled inland, afraid of the bombing — and they went to cocktails and tea dances, and were together every night. By the time Teddy left to fight the Japanese, Yvette was pregnant with Margot.

All of that happens in the first two pages of the novel and Meloy has already introduced all of her major themes — I mean it when I say she does not waste words.

The driving force of the novel will be the family story. Patriotic Teddy remains in the reserves after the war, which means he is called up again when the Korean War breaks out a few years later. Yvette, on the other hand, is somewhat of a rebel — she’s Canadian and her family doesn’t approve of this union with an American flyboy, she always seems to be stretching if not breaking the rules. If you sensed some presaging in the phrase “Yvette was pregnant with Margot”, you’re right — unplanned pregnancies are the markers of change in the family story line, something that was far more common five decades ago than it is now, but very real nonetheless.

Teddy and Yvette end up with three offspring. Margot will be the pious one who contemplates convent life before choosing an equally safe, upper middle-class conventional marriage. Clarissa, one year younger, is more unconventional, opting for a youthful marriage that eventually dissolves and sends her into the world of single motherhood. And Jamie, who joins the family more than a decade later, is effectively the representation of Generation X with all the anger and lack of opportunity that that involves. The lives of these three children as they mature provide the opportunity for the author to explore the bigger world of America in the latter half of the 20th century — the conventional, the early rebels and the confused generation that followed.

And finally there is that marriage Mass — underlying both the secular themes that provide narrative plot to the novel, Liars and Saints is an exploration of what it was like to be a (lapsed) Catholic during these 50 plus years. Teddy and Yvette are anything but conventionally religious, but it is said that being raised as a Catholic is an experience that means part of you is always Catholic, even if you reject the Church. I’m a lapsed Protestant so I experienced this theme (it is developed principally through Yvette) more as an observer than through personal memories — I suspect those raised in the Catholic faith as children (particularly women) are going to find it even stronger than I did and it becomes more powerful as the book goes on.

There are not a lot of dramatic moments in this novel, but they are there and they are important — revealing any of them would be significant spoilers, so you will just have to trust me. Suffice it say Meloy doesn’t miss the opportunity to offer extended vignettes ranging from generational conflict to drug issues to the role of women that were a part of those decades in Western America. If John Fante explored much of the rougher side of this world in his four-volume Saga of Arturo Bandini, Meloy gives us a realistic picture of the conflicts that were going in the supposedly comfortable conventional middle-class of the time. While the two authors have virtually no similarities in style, taken together they present an interesting picture of the confusion that was California in the late 20th century.

And I can’t help but conclude this review with a comparison to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, another American saga (albeit Midwestern and Eastern) of roughly the same era that has attracted much attention during the last four months. I am of an age which makes me a contemporary for the characters in both books and for my money Meloy does a much better job of showing what that world is like. She has none of Franzen’s scattered, near-polemical approach to critiquing the era; rather, her quiet narrative shows with much more depth what its impact was on “ordinary” people of the age. Her characters are more fully-structured, and hence more sympathetic, and the dilemmas that they face aroused far more personal memories.

And she is a better writer. Having said that, I have to admit that after reading only two of her books, I suspect Meloy’s real strength lies in the short story. As a number of other bloggers have observed, she knows how to use that restricted form to portray very complete pictures. And in many ways, that is true of Liars and Saints — in one sense, it could be regarded as a collection of linked stories. Extending the story over so many years in such a short book means that she does skip a lot of years — the novel is a chronological collection of very well-developed incidents that, taken together, produce the overall story, although each incident is complete on its own. The result is a very rewarding reading experience and the links that tie together her three major themes result in a compelling portrayal of both place and time. I highly recommend it.

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10 Responses to “Liars and Saints, by Maile Meloy”

  1. Trevor Says:

    I’m really looking forward to reading this. The other day I pulled it down and put it on my side table for sometime this week or next. Because of that, I didn’t spend a lot of time on your review, but I am looking forward to looking at it soon!

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I think your timing is very good. While it is not a totally cheery book, it is engaging in a very human way — and the family story (both its ups and downs) is very much in keeping with the holiday season.

  3. leroyhunter Says:

    Trevor rated Both Ways… higher then Tobias Wolff, now you’re putting her ahead of Franzen – serious praise. I must pick something by her up.

  4. Isabel Says:

    I ditto LeRoy Hunter’s comments.

    This will be a Spring Break Reading. I have enough books for my holiday break .

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy, Isabel: She is a very readable author, who supplies much to consider. I’ll be heading to her first volume of short stories next — but probably wait for several months since I would like to still have work to look forward to.

  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Impressive.

    This isn’t the sort of thing that draws me in at all as a rule. Talent though makes all the difference, doesn’t it? That quote is lovely, and to achieve all that in so few pages is no small thing.

    I’ll keep an eye out for it, you make a very good case in its favour.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: The two I have read are pretty “American” in that both the short story collection and this novel are strong on that for both setting and context. Having said that, you do know our continent so I think you would find her interesting. I’d recommend starting with a short story collection (the Book Depository shows Both Ways in paperback).

  8. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I shall start with that one Kevin, particularly given the showing it makes in Trevor’s end of year list too.

    As an aside, your Both Ways link at the opening of your post doesn’t work so you likely need to edit it.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for that note on the link, Max — it is fixed. If you do stumble across a copy of her other novel, A Family Daughter, you should probably pick it up since it seems to be the hardest to find. I am quite looking forward to getting to it eventually since Meloy’s thoughts on family have been a consistently well-done part of her work in what I have read so far.

  10. BuriedInPrint Says:

    “…the supposedly comfortable conventional middle-class of the time…” This is one of the things that I so admired about this novel, the way in which she matter-of-factly deals with lies and passions and secrets, the way in which the emotion swells from within the prose. I share your contradictory desire to read her work all in a burst and to portion it out.

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