Liars and Saints, by Maile Meloy
Liars and Saints.|
272 pages, $24 (hardback).
Maile Meloy's first novel, Liars and Saints, is a compact, finely drawn portrait of a family. In chapters told from alternating points of view, she spans the period from World War II to the present—and hints at stories even older than that. In less talented hands, this book would be a soap opera: birth secrets are hidden, sisters and mothers lie, and even incest is committed. But reading the sparse, careful words of Meloy, it feels believable and real and almost tragic.
There are scenes and sections in this book that are close to perfect. The first two chapters are a study in how to quickly draw a reader into the emotions and struggles of a family. Meloy focuses on the details until they, like a close-up picture, take on an importance beyond themselves. A family photograph printed on thick paper is a reminder of infidelity almost committed. An uneaten cream puff represents a father's dreams for his son, and a son's refusal to want those same dreams. Girls talk about how their feet feel after taking off roller skates: "soft and stuck to the ground, after gliding around, three inches taller." Meloy infuses these everyday scenes with an intensity that turns them into something more, something nearly, but not quite, important.
And that's where this book fails to live up to its promise. For all its wonderful description, this is a portrait of a family, and that family isn't quite interesting enough. The simplicity of the storytelling, which is its strength, is also its downfall. About two-thirds of the way through the book, I found myself wondering when something would happen to these people. That is, things happened, but they weren't important things—and even when they were a little bit important, the people they were happening to failed to recognize or act on them. Then, suddenly, something did happen, and for five or six pages I sat up and took notice. I won't go into what exactly goes on, but it involves a beach and a kissing someone who should never, never be kissed and swimming in the sea until whatever might have felt wrong feels right again. Those pages are really good. Magically good. But then someone gets pregnant and someone dies and someone goes looking for his past and we've slipped back into cliches again. The last third of the book is unnecessary. All the pages after chapter twenty-eight could be torn out and I wouldn't feel I'd missed a thing.
Part of the problem is that this book is told from a different point of view in each chapter. We don't stay with a character long enough to start to care about him, and since the person in each subsequent chapter paints the people in the previous in a less than sympathetic light, we can't climb into a head and heart the way we might if we had a little more time. The characters change, the point of view shifts, but the story keeps going on and on like a river moving inexorably towards a destination already known. The scenery might be pretty, but the prettiest view can fade when you move so slowly and determined. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that the most immediate and breathless scene takes place on a beach; the crashing waves are overwhelming in a way that no river can be.
Meloy's gift for precise description makes this story better than it should be. A somewhat ordinary description of a girl's adolescent yearnings is transformed by the last line:
From an issue of Tiger Beat magazine from the grocery store, she cut page-sized posters of musicians that the girls at school liked: Corey Hart, Duran Duran, and Rick Springfield. The posters went up with Scotch tape, beside her bed and on her closet door, glossy with black backgrounds. When she finished, she was satisfied that it looked like a teenager's room. Also at the grocery store she bought a pink disposable razor and shaved her legs to the knee, which is what the girls at school (who were allowed) were allowed.
That last turn of phrase perfectly captures a mood, a time of life, an understanding of what's important in a teenage girl's world—"the girls at school." There are many such turns of phrase in this book. They, and the first two chapters, and the five- or six-page section about two-thirds of the way through, are writing at its best. On an otherwise lazy river, they provide an exhilarating rush of whitewater.
I will look forward to reading Maile Meloy's next work, and hope that she stretches herself to write a story as ambitious and accomplished as this book shows her technique to be.