Family Secrets

Maile Meloy’s second novel isn’t what it seems.

In her remarkable first novel, Liars and Saints (2003), Maile Meloy flouted an assumption all but taken for granted these days: that realistic novels about family dysfunction—especially debut efforts in the genre—are rooted in personal experience. Critics were amazed that a young writer from a not-particularly religious Montana background could so authoritatively portray the multigenerational turmoil of a French Canadian-American family reared on Catholicism and exposed to half a century of Southern California sun. “To ignore a couple of time-honored writerly rules of thumb—write what you know; show, don’t tell—takes nerve,” as Laura Miller put it in the New York Times Magazine. Now along comes Meloy’s second novel, A Family Daughter, which is expressly designed to explode the notion that its predecessor was a pure feat of invention. Arriving as the media swarms over James Frey, Meloy’s endeavor delivers a bracing challenge to nostrums about the therapeutic uses, and abuses, of the imagination. What clearly fascinates her are its mysteriously transformative powers.

Liars and Saints startled readers with its uncanny realism. In telling the story of the Santerre family, from a wartime marriage in the mid-1940s on down through the decades, Meloy distills truths about characters, places, and historical moments without resorting to the by-now familiar transcription of mundane, name-brand American reality. She whisks parents and children through vicissitudes that in other hands might well seem soap operatic (and too heavy-handedly symptomatic)—an occasion of near incest, a teenage pregnancy that inspires family secrets, family deaths by cancer and even murder. But in Meloy’s spare recounting—she can conjure a scene or a soul or a swathe of time in astonishingly few strokes—the spiritual odyssey of a half-century unfolds in the Santerre’s middle-class lives, all in a mere 260 pages. There are no heroes, no villains, although there is a saint, whose faith-based sway over the family Meloy shows to be as gently coercive as it is ultimately awe-inspiring. Pretty much everybody is, in one way or another, a liar.

At the end of Liars and Saints, Meloy bids the Santerres farewell on the brink of the new millennium, with a look ahead at the “boy scion who would carry the family on.” Instead, in A Family Daughter, she has returned to carry on with the family herself, though not in the way you might expect. This time we meet the “real” members of the Santerre clan, the actual figures whose lives, it is now revealed, inspired a traumatized third-generation member of the family, Abby (daughter of Clarissa Santerre and Henry Collins), to write “a novel about a Catholic family keeping secrets from each other.” The novel goes untitled (and is only glimpsed second-hand), but it is obviously Liars and Saints. This book’s gradual birth, though it is rarely in the foreground, is the event that unifies and propels A Family Daughter. The pretext of the new novel, then, is a meta-fictional one: We are asked to believe that Liars and Saints is itself an autobiographical artifact, written by one Abby Collins—even though we know it to be Meloy’s own novel.

Given Meloy’s record of upending conventional expectations, it should come as no surprise that this hall-of-mirrors endeavor of hers—in whichever order you proceed through these very accessible books, they reflect back on each other—doesn’t quite fit any preconceived postmodern paradigm. The twinned novels lack the highly self-conscious and ambitious artifice of, say, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, or the cerebral intricacies of the Nathan Zuckerman novels of Philip Roth (whose praise adorned Liars and Saints). There’s not much muss and fuss in Meloy’s maneuvering; as novelists in her generation seem to, she takes such writerly gambits for granted. At her best, the result is an unforced freshness in her exploration of the curious ways the imagination works. Instead of dwelling on the traumas that drive Abby to write what she writes, Meloy veers in a less diagnostic, more daring direction. Above all, she wants to watch how Abby’s book jolts her and her relatives into a new awareness that the trajectories of their own lives, unchosen though they have felt as they unfolded, perhaps could have been otherwise—and could still be.

This time around, Meloy iswriting what she knows, though not in the ordinary sense: She’s drawing on an imaginative landscape she created as a writer. A Family Daughter centers on Abby’s interrupted college years—the interlude after the sudden death of her father, when she is gestating, then writing her novel (in which a recognizable version of each family member appears), and then dealing with the family’s reception of it. Meloy strives for more of the expressive messiness and immediacy generally associated with woolly life rather than careful craft: She’s busier showing than telling. The characters don’t enjoy the merciful gaze or come into the crystallized focus that their counterparts did in Liars and Saints. For example, where Jamie Santerre—a protagonist in the quasi-incest drama at the core of both books—made his way through the first novel as a quirkily noble permutation of the prodigal son, in the new novel he emerges as more of a perpetual adolescent, California-style.

The initial effect of Meloy’s meta-fictional gambit is almost the opposite of what you would probably expect. It’s the supposedly “real and chaotic world,” as Abby calls it at one point—the backstory that unfolds in A Family Daughter—that feels, well, made-up: heavy on self-consciously exotic figures (a Hungarian whore, a senile lady in Argentine exile, a two-timing airhead transformed by motherhood), far-fetched yet formulaic plots, lame-sounding dialogue. There is a therapist who says things like “no one ever modeled love for you,” and a professor/boyfriend for Abby who is too good to be true (clichés that wouldn’t be caught dead in Liars and Saints). What is missing from this wildly varied canvas of purported verisimilitude are the startling revelations that imaginative truth can deliver—when a writer is utterly attuned to a character whom she has inhabited from the inside out, and can telegraph a sea-change in a mere gesture. Liars and Saints is suffused with moments when Meloy succeeds at that: the father “in a rush, kissing them and dancing her mother around the living room,” only to return from war a nondancer seething at California sunniness; the mother checking how she looks in her slip before spilling a secret to her husband that she senses should stay hidden. By contrast, A Family Daughter, for roughly its first half, seems disappointingly flat. In theory, the novel should seem somehow more real than the book Abby is writing. Instead, it reads like competent yet contrived fiction that hasn’t made a true creative leap beyond raw material—which is, when you think about it, precisely the case: It is reworking the terrain of Liars and Saints.

A Family Daughter comes to life—or starts to become art?—when Meloy pushes beyond the prehistory to explore the mysterious question of how a work of fiction can shape people’s real-world fates. For Abby, who has written autobiographically in a way that Meloy herself didn’t, the experience of ushering her novel into print is fraught with fears of exposure—as it is for all the Santerres, whose own secrets come back to haunt them, and enlighten them, as they encounter the book. But what ensues is neither an Oprah-style score-settling nor a self-consciously clever postmodern exercise. It’s yet more stories. For the Santerres, the book Abby has written proves to be a catalyst that makes them see their lives differently—and leads more than one of them to seize on possibilities, and seek out difficulties, they wouldn’t have. Meloy is subtle and playful in dramatizing her characters’ responses. While Abby’s mother broods on the book as an indictment of her, Abby’s grandmother adamantly distances herself from the whole endeavor: “That didn’t happen!,” thinks Yvette.

But Meloy nudges Yvette, and us, into confronting how hard it is to disentangle what we consider our real lives from the stories—the secrets, lies, evasions, inventions—about them that we create for ourselves. She stages a scene of Yvette’s disorientation swiftly, yet unforgettably. Abby, desperate to find out whether a crucial family secret she has imagined and incorporated into her novel might in fact be true, approaches Yvette, the woman at the center of the raggedly woven Santerre web: “Yvette was so confused that she tried to remember if she could have forgotten a thing like that. ….’No!’ she said finally.” It’s a deceptively low-key moment in keeping with Meloy’s own fictional mission. Without aspiring to join a pantheon of postmodern virtuosos, Meloy alerts readers that perspectives are slippery, experience deals out surprises no one can plan for, truth is strange and so is fiction, and the two can be hard to distinguish, in art as in life. Imagination, her fiction reminds us, isn’t a crutch. It’s the compass, however wavering, without which we would be truly lost.