A Family Daughter, by Maile Meloy

by

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

For this reader, A Family Daughter is an unsual book, in an unusual way: my reaction to it is almost completely neutral. There are certainly books that enthuse me — Meloy’s own story collecton Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It is a good example. An even greater number rank somewhere on the positive side of neutral or slip into the realm of disappointing. And then there are a few (fortunately, just a few) that I find just plain bad. This novel, most unusually, lands squarely in the middle.

On the positive side, A Family Daughter was an engaging, two-session read. Novels that disappoint me tend to bring out my time-wasting “avoidance” behavior: rather than picking them up, I find reasons to scan websites or email instead of reading. This one certainly did not do that.

But the further into it I got, the farther I seemed to move from the book. Characters and plot were okay (and definitely not annoying, as is sometime the case) but never much more. And as I approached the end, I found myself mainly thinking about which book I would read next, never the sign of a postive response to a book.

A Family Daughter, published in 2006, revisits both characters and story that Meloy previously explored in her first novel, Liars and Saints, three years earlier. That book told the story of the Santerre family in post-War (both WWII and Korea) California — Teddy Santerre was a fighter pilot in both wars; his Canadian born and raised wife, Yvette, served as the central character in the story. They had three children: the eldest daughter, Margot, was even more Catholic than her mother, the middle child, Clarissa, was a rules-breaking rebel almost from day one and the only son, Jamie, was a late, unplanned arrival who mainly seemed to upset the comfortable equilibrium that the Santerres had established before his birth.

That novel succeeded on a number of fronts (aspects of the sense of emptiness that followed the two wars, personal religious conflict, among others) and I thoroughly enjoyed it. So I was quite prepared to see why Meloy felt the Santerres were worth revisiting.

A Family Daughter is told mainly from the perspective of Clarissa’s daughter, Abby, and opens with some promise that the strengths of Liars and Saints will be renewed:

In the summer of 1979, just when Yvette Santerre thought her children were all safely launched and out of the house, her granddaughter came to stay in Hermosa Beach and came down with a fever, and then a rash. Yvette thought it might be stress: Abby was seven, and her parents were considering divorce, and she must have sensed trouble. At bedtime she cried from homesickness, and Yvette asked if she wanted to go home. Abby said, “I want to go home, and I want to stay here.”

The stress only gets worse when Abby’s malaise is diagnosed as chicken pox and she is confined to grandmotherly barracks, as it were. Yvette is out of practice with mothering and becomes increasingly frustrated, but things get better when Jamie, now a young adult, arrives to visit his “favorite niece” (“I’m your only niece” is Abby’s immediate response). A trip to the beach with Jamie quickly sets Abby back on course:

Two hours later they came back, Abby sandy from the beach, with a tub of Dairy Queen ice cream and some Dilly bars that they rushed to the freezer. Abby chatted happily all through dinner, and it seemed to Yvette as if her cheerfulness were a wheel that Jamie had got spinning. Now he just needed to give it a push every so often, to keep it going.

“Thank you, Jamie,” Yvette said, when she got her son alone. She couldn’t remember when she had last thanked him for anything but Christmas presents, and now she couldn’t stop.

Meloy spends only 20 pages effectively re-introducing the Santerre family (and reminding us of some of their internal conflicts) and Abby is soon a freshman at the University of California, San Diego, the school where her mother and now-estranged father, Henry, met in the registration line. Meloy has a dark side and it moves to the fore in Abby’s junior year: Henry asks her to come along on a ski trip, but she declines — on his way through the Donner Pass, he hits a patch of black ice and plunges to his death.

Abby descends into depression and, several months later, Clarissa asks Jamie (unemployed and unoccupied, but still Abby’s favorite uncle, albeit the only one) to visit San Diego and cheer her up. He stays in her apartment and the depression starts to lift, until one night Abby kisses him “not on the temple, but on the mouth”:

He was going to say they shouldn’t do anything more, but she waited like he said, watching him. He picked her up in the towel, with an arm under her knees and one under her back. He groaned a little, which made her laugh. Then he carried her out of the hallway into the bedroom and laid her down on the sublet bed, no excuses about how she had led him into it. He untucked the end of the towel and pulled it aside, and there was half of her, the soft breast, the smooth hip. It was right there in the Bible, as literature or not. Do not uncover the nakedness of your sister’s daughter, for she is your niece. It is a depravity. He pushed the other side of the towel away.

“Oh, Abby,” he said.

There is enough hidden under the surface normality of the Santerre family that that wasn’t really a complete stunner, but I’ll admit that is where my “dis-engagement” with both family and novel began. Unfortunately, it continued to grow apace. The author develops story lines not just around Abby and Jamie, but Clarissa, Margot and Yvette as well — and for this reader they increasingly stretched credibility to the point that they seemed more designed for author convenience than reader enlightenment.

I said in my review of Liars and Saints that I felt Meloy was a better short story writer than novelist, as much as I liked that volume (her limited catalogue now includes two novels, two story collections and one youth book) and I think my response to A Family Daughter reflects that even more. The various incidents that come into play are all developed individually well enough — they just never came together to produce a cohesive book.

As I said at the start, Meloy is a strong enough writer that the novel was not a disappointment — an incomplete collection of well-observed incidents would perhaps be the best description. She certainly deserves to be read (and I look forward to her next adult book) but for those who don’t know her work, I would point to any of her other three volumes (all reviewed on this site) as a better place to start. A Family Daughter is most suitable for completists like KfC — and even I have to admit that the best of authors don’t hit it out of the park every time.

6 Responses to “A Family Daughter, by Maile Meloy”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I was thinking about Both Ways earlier this week, funnily enough, the collection and the title story. It’s a testament to the skill of that work that I still remember it.

    Much of what I liked though was her skill at implication, at leaving so much unsaid and yet said for all that. Perhaps at novel length there’s left space to leave silences.

    Or perhaps this one just didn’t quite fly. A shame either way, but I do still look forward to more of her short stories in due course.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      You make a good point about leaving space for silences — part of my challenge with the novel was that there were just too many spaces. I did find it interesting that as late as about three-quarters of the way through I was still thinking that Meloy would somehow pull the whole thing together.

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  2. sshaver Says:

    Yes, among the seemingly endless depredations of war, one of the least explored is the emptiness that comes after.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      There are certainly examples in UK fiction (mainly World War I, however) and I can think of a few set in the American north-east. But this is only one that I can recall which is set in “booming” California — and indeed that “emptiness” is one of the contrasts between Teddy and Yvette and their children (who find a different version, it must be said — boom creates its own symptoms of emptiness).

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  3. Trevor Says:

    I started her other novel a while back, but I didn’t make it too far. I plan to go back to it, but it seems to me that she has the gift of short story writing, which doesn’t often transfer to novel writing, just as gifted novelists often cannot do short stories. You’re confirming this is the case with Meloy, Kevin. Sherry read her YA novel The Apothecary, found the ideas fun but didn’t like the technique. I haven’t read it yet, but I do note that what appears to be the sequel, The Apprentices, is coming out in June. Sigh. I’m glad she’s going after the kinds of things she wants to write, but I hope it doesn’t mean she’s leaving short stories behind.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I did find Liars and Saints better than this one because I thought Meloy opened up a number of interesting themes that provoked thought — this one seemed to be more incidents than themes.

      I haven’t read the YA novel, so can’t comment although I would say from the four I have read that she does have an interest (and conveys it well) in what is involved in “growing up”.

      I can’t see her abandoning the short story but I do hope she continues to explore adult novel writing. The first two were not failures by any means and I think an outstanding novel from her is entirely possible.

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