Archive for the ‘Meloy, Maile (4)’ Category

A Family Daughter, by Maile Meloy

March 8, 2013

Purchased at

Purchased at

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.


Half in Love, by Maile Meloy

June 17, 2011

Purchased at

Maile Meloy pretty much blew me away with the first book of hers that I read, the 2009 short story collection Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It. All 11 stories in that volume were very good or excellent, in my opinion — and that assessment was shared by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and a number of prize juries. The book remains on my shortlist of favorite story collections.

Meloy, born in 1972, has only published four works to date with two novels and this debut collection of stories comprising the remainder. While I promised myself I would spread out reading the rest of her work, I’m not doing a very good job of honoring that pledge — I read and liked the novel Liars and Saints last December, so with this one under my belt, I only have A Family Daughter to go.

Half in Love was published in 2002, so Meloy wrote all of these stories before turning 30. I think it is a fair assessment to say that she was still experimenting with finding her voice in terms of both style and content. The 14 stories in this debut are all between 10 and 15 pages (a good length, frankly, for an author still finding her ground). While they are all on the positive side of neutral, the overall collection is not up to Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It. That is an observation, not a criticism, but if you haven’t read Meloy yet I would recommend starting with her most recent work and then coming back to this one.

While the best stories in the collection are set in Meloy’s native Montana, let’s start with a look at one set in California (she got her MFA from UC Irvine), “Four Lean Hounds, CA. 1976”. In what has become a harbinger of Meloy style, she wastes no time in setting up the story for the reader in the opening paragraph (I confess to loving short story writers who do that):

The first time Hank slept with Kay — the only time — was the night her husband drowned. Her husband was his best friend, had been for years. Duncan was a great diver, a crack shot, a good storyteller. He seemed to like being in the world more than most people did. He’d married Kay on the grassy bank of a lake up in the Swan River Valley, and everyone danced barefoot and camped out for the weekend. The way Kay looked at Duncan, it was like he was the whole world. Everyone who saw them knew that.

Hank and Duncan were in the underwater-welding business; the fatal accident came when they were looking for earthquake damage to the Hansen Dam in Los Angeles. They were 80 feet underwater when Duncan waved Hank to the surface. He took off his wet suit and packed his gear before realizing that Duncan had not surfaced. It truly was an accident, but that in no way lessens his guilt. Hank goes to fetch Kay after bringing Duncan’s body to the surface.

They drove in silence back to the reservoir, and as they approached they could see Duncan’s body next to a police cruiser. One officer snapped pictures while the other sat sideways in the open car door, talking on the radio. Hank wished he had waited to call them, so Kay could have been with Duncan alone. She knelt by the body and pushed her husband’s hair from his forehead. Hank answered the cops’ questions, feeling awkward and angry. Yes, he had surfaced first alone. When he found Duncan there had been no pulse, and CPR had failed. He felt the cops’ contempt for him, for letting his partner die. Finally they took Duncan away.

That quote supplies a representative sample of the economical way in which Meloy handles both detail and emotion. She has a seductive manner of engaging the reader in both and uses it to excellent effect. I’ll leave it to you to experience how Hank and Kay handle the disaster that is troublesome to both.

While “Native Sandstone” is set in Utah, it certainly feels like Montana. Here is another Meloy opening:

There was no house yet, just a wellhead where the house would be, under an overturned box to keep the sand out. Clay was building the house, and it would be one to live in for a long time, so they were trying to get everything right. From the passenger seat, Susan watched him wedge the box between the green metal stakes that kept it in place. He climbed into the car and threw the water sample into the back seat.

“Now,” he said, and he sat with his hand on the ignition.

“The sandstone,” Susan said. She checked her watch, hoping they wouldn’t interrupt Albert’s dinner.


Albert is 83 and not long for this world — he has always refused sales offers for the sandstone since they are his link to history:

A pile of cut sandstone from the pioneer days, chiseled by pioneer hands, spilled down a slope into the rice grass and knapweed. Susan scanned the pale red blocks, wondering, not for the first time, how much exactly there was, how much might be buried in the lawn and under the visible stone. The stone had once been a schoolhouse. On a pilgrimage to the library in Blanding, Susan had looked up an old sepia photograph of boys in caps and girls in aprons standing before a tidy one-room structure with a peaked roof, the blocks held together by mortar now long eroded.

Susan wants the sandstone although she is more certain on why she wants it than how she will use it (“It’s beautiful stone. We want native stone to build with, railroad ties, things that fit in.”) Clay is more sensitive to how important the old stones are to Albert — and has a pretty high avoidance tendency which causes him to skirt making a sales request. What you have is three characters all attached in different ways to the stone blocks; the story explores the tension that that creates.

I acknowledged my affection for horse racing fiction in my review of Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule, so let’s end this review with a brief look at Meloy’s “A Stakes Horse”. Addy and her elderly, ill father spend their summer weekends hauling broken-down horses to cheap throughbred racing meets held across Montana (I know from experience that these weekend meets are, indeed, very cheap — and often suspect in their commitment to fair outcomes). When the story opens it is the first weekend of the state fair in Great Falls, a meet that features the highest purses in the state.

Addy and her father have a contender for the biggest purse of all (and survival money for the winter) in a filly they have raised since it was a foal. One complication is that father insists on riding Connell as the jockey: “My ex-husband had just ridden our fastest horse, a filly we called Rocky, to a surprsing loss. My annulled husband — we weren’t married long enough to earn the “ex”.”

That result suggests some race-fixing in the jock’s room and later results suggest that is exactly what is up. Addy has her own, heart-breaking way of handling it.

Don’t let my critical qualifications at the start of this review scare you away from this collection. Half in Love is a fine piece of work, even if Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It is better. Perhaps the best news is that there is every reason to expect even better work in the future — Meloy is a talent who bears watching and reading.

Liars and Saints, by Maile Meloy

December 20, 2010

Purchased at

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.

Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, by Maile Meloy

January 18, 2010

Purchased from

A few nights ago I sat down with Maile Meloy’s new collection of short stories, intending to read one or two and then move on to something else. A couple of hours later, having read eight of the 11 stories, I forced myself to close the book and save the last three for later. Now it is true that I am notoriously undisciplined when it comes to short stories — no matter how firm the resolve to space out the reading, I hardly ever succeed. Despite that, my “Meloy” experience is a testament to the readability of this collection. I’ve reread all 11 since and am happy to report the (somewhat more disciplined) second approach confirmed my initial positive response.

Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It has received significant critical attention and may well get more in the next few weeks as American fiction prize season moves into high gear. It was one of five fiction works on the New Yorks Times 2009 Top 10 list and a Los Angeles Times Best Books of 2009. Tony's Book World included it in his year-end top 10. Meloy is also no stranger to prizes, even though this is only her fourth book — her initial collection, Half in Love, won a PEN-Malamud award and she was shortlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize for her first novel, Liars and Saints.

As you might gather from my experience, Meloy is a highly readable writer. Her prose is direct and accessible. She is a realist, but that is not her strength — it is the curves that she plants in her realism (and there is often more than one in any given story) that make her work so seductive. That is a trait that I particularly appreciate. Ian McEwan does it in his best books and the two do bear comparison.

Consider this excerpt from “The Children”, which supplies the title for the book. Fielding is opening up his cabin, but is obsessed with how he will tell his wife that he is leaving her for the young woman (now 32, it must be said) who as a 17-year-old taught their children how to swim. Another young woman, a friend of his children whom he has also dallied with, shows up to says the truth is known. And then his wife arrives (we know she is smarter than Fielding) and effectively traps him into promising he will stay:

She watched him, his eminently intelligent wife. He pulled her closer to make the scrutiny stop, and feeling her head on his shoulder was reassuring. He was doomed to ambivalence and desire. A braver man, or a more cowardly one, would simply flee. A happier or more complacent man would stay and revel in the familiar, wrap it around him like an old bathrobe. He seemed to be none of those things, and could only deceive the people he loved, and then disappoint and worry them when they saw through him. There was a poem Meg [his daughter] had brought home from college, with the line “Both ways is the only way I want it.” The force with which he wanted it both ways made him grit his teeth. What kind of fool wanted it only one way?

“Doomed to ambivalence and desire” is a condition that could be ascribed to most of Meloy’s central characters, whether they find themselves caught in a relationship that seems to be lacking something or whether they are considering entering a relationship. These 11 stories are not linked but the frustrating desire to have it both ways is a uniting theme.

Meloy was born in Montana, the state immediately south of Alberta where I live, and sets a number of her stories there. I admit that added to the appeal of this collection for me — Montana’s mix of prairie, foothills and mountains is not dissimilar to my home territory.

One characteristic of this part of the world, for those who don’t know it, is that things are a long way apart, a trait the Meloy puts to good use in the opening story “Travis, B.” The B. of the title is Beth Travis, a young lawyer in her first job in Missoula, who has signed up to teach an evening course in school law in Glendive. The problem is that Missoula is on the west side of the state — Glendive is an icy eight-hour drive across state, near the North Dakota border. A tough commute for a two-hour class.

The other main character in that story is Chet Moran, a ranch hand marked forever by the polio that afflicted him when he was two. He had a job in Billings but:

That winter, he took another feeding job, outside Glendive on the North Dakota border. He thought if he went east instead of north, there might not be so much snow. He lived in an insulated room built into the barn, with a TV, a couch, a hot plate, and an icebox, and he fed the cows with a team and sled. He bought some new magazines, in which the girls were strangers to him, and he watched Starsky and Hutch and the local news. At night, he could hear the horses moving in their stalls. But he had been wrong about the snow; by October it had already started. He made it through Christmas, with packages and letters from his mother, but in January he got afraid of himself again. The fear was not particular. It began as a buzzing feeling around his spine, a restlessness without a specific aim.

Chet wanders into Travis, B.’s class, takes a seat and falls, kind of, into love — well, infatuation anyway. If the commute is a problem for an evening class, you can imagine the challenge it poses to a relationship, particularly for two people who are not very experienced at relationships anyway.

It is hard to adequately describe a Meloy story without providing spoilers. Those two are reasonable examples of what the collection has to offer. In every story, the author finds a wrong note or jarring chord and then plays it to perfection. Her realism supplies the framework, the off-chord is explored in detail to provide the compelling aspect of the story.

I haven’t read Meloy’s other books, but the titles alone (Half in Love, Liars and Saints, A Family Daughter) would seem to indicate that this is the territory she does like to explore. She does it well enough here — and I certainly recommend this collection to anyone who likes the short story genre — that I look forward to my own future exploration of her work.

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