Once upon a time I sat down to read a book called Liars and Saints, which I had noticed in a piece in TIME magazine. I had bought the book with the intent of giving it as a gift, but after reading it I thought better: although not completely terrible, Liars and Saints possessed nothing to recommend it, inhabiting that wasteland of contrived implausibilities that seems to be the home of so much literary fiction. Generations pass in a matter of pages, sex is had, and babies get made. It was rather standard, rather bland fare for that type of novel.
Apparently I am a robot who merely follows his to-read list unquestioningly: A Family Daughter was on the list; it was available at my library; I borrowed it. I didn’t look at the description, so it wasn’t until I started reading and saw the names “Abby” and “Yvette”. Those sounded vaguely familiar—was this a sequel? A prequel? What had I gotten myself into?
It turns out A Family Daughter is related to Maile Meloy’s previous novel, but not in the conventional sense. Instead, it swallows the universe of Liars and Saint, which turns out to be a somewhat-fictional family history as written by this book’s version of Abby Collins! This is very meta, and normally I love metafiction. Maybe it’s a holdover from my days of high school drama class and a perverse fascination with breaking the fourth wall; certainly I like when authors self-deprecatingly portray themselves or their own work in the story. However, the simple metafictional nature of A Family Daughter is nowhere near intriguing enough to save it from its numerous flaws.
I got out the sticky notes around page 6. I don’t ordinarily take notes while reading, resorting to a sticky only when I need to ensure I can find a specific page—usually for a quotation. Sometimes I use stickies while reading non-fiction, in order to remind myself of points I want to address in my review. When I break out the stickies en masse for fiction, it’s usually a bad sign: I’m not just going to criticize this book; I’m going to itemize my criticism.
The sticky on page 6 reads, “One-line descriptions” and was prompted by this passage:
Yvette stood at the kitchen counter wondering what part of her daughter’s selfishness was her fault. Had she not given Clarissa enough attention when she was Abby’s age? Had her other children distracted her—Margot, who was older and perfect, and Jamie, who was younger and troubled?
I don’t want to make too much of this, because all writers make choices, and sometimes the best choice is the most expedient one. And I admit that my recollection of Liars and Saints did not leave me favourably disposed to this book. However, I still balk when I read the above passage, not because it’s particularly bad writing, but because it just seems to pigeonhole this book as “literary” more than any genre snobbery on my part could. Through these pithy and simplistic descriptions, Meloy reminds us that we don’t really need to pay attention to these characters, because they are all just stereotypes and caricatures. In general, the characters in this book are either flat and unremarkable—like Peter, the TA and Abby’s sometime love interest—or completely unbelievable—like Saffron, Katya, et al. Teddy, the Santerre family patriarch, is a textbook case of the crotchety old man:
The receptionist had a nice voice, and dark hair. Teddy made an appointment on a computer screen to have somebody’s grandson put a sonic probe into his eyes and then suck out the lens and put in a folded-up new one, and he gave the pretty woman Yvette’s e-mail address. He had begun life, he reflected, with the radio, the telegraph, and the Victrola, and he had been perfectly happy with those.
(I swear it wasn’t just because of that last line that I chose to highlight this passage, although it does make the technophile in me cringe.) I think Meloy is trying to be funny here, or at least cute, with such turns of phrase as “somebody’s grandson”. Alas, it falls flat, because it might be entertaining, but it does nothing to deepen Teddy’s character. Throughout the book, he is this one-note instrument: he’s disappointed with his son for never making anything of his life; he’s chronically unable to perceive Clarissa’s flirtation with lesbianism; he has, in general, checked out of much of family life because of his aging senses.
I’ll say this for Liars and Saints: at least the stories of more of its characters were accessible. A Family Daughter follows mostly Abby and Jamie, with brief but unsatisfying detours toward Clarissa and a therapist (more on her later). We get a glimpse at Teddy’s backstory, and a little more from Yvette, but that’s about it. This is not the multigenerational story that Liars and Saints aspired to be—and that would be fine, if it stood alone. Since it seems to inhabit a parallel universe, I feel adrift: how much do I really know about this Teddy? How much can I assume is the same as what I learned about him in Liars and Saints? There are all these echoes in my mind, and I’m not sure what’s real.
I kind of like the therapist character, if only because it’s so rare for a book with characters in therapy to show us the other side of the table, so to speak. Meloy writes, “Leila Tirrett was a psychologist with a Ph.D. and problems of her own”, and aside from attempting to sound ironic, I like that she humanizes the character this way. Suddenly she’s no longer just a third party who listens to Abby’s problems and confessions: she’s a real person, with her own issues, and Abby is just the latest patient in her life.
Small moments like the one above prevent me from condemning A Family Daughter completely. Like Liars and Saints, it is not so much terrible as just unremarkable. That might sound weird, considering that this book is full of improbable events. There’s a Romanian orphan who turns out to be the son of a Hungarian prostitute—who wants him back. Jamie ends up marrying the mother and adopting the orphan, and they move from Argentina to the United States to attempt a happily ever after ending (I will let you guess how that works for them). There’s a reason that we say truth is often stranger than fiction, for we tend to require our fiction be realistic, that events flow logically from their cause. When they don’t, it becomes absurd. Mixing absurdism with attempts to create powerful dramas is a dangerous business. Adept authors can come up with something akin to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but most of the time, you get something more along the lines of The Hitman Diaries. I know where A Family Daughter lies along this spectrum.
I would like to think that Meloy is attempting something clever and, yes, risky. Her metafictional novel-within-the-novel, while not entirely novel to me, is still an intriguing premise that should have gone a long way to making me enjoy this book. Unfortunately, the plot and characters themselves are just so literary in the most pretentious sense of that term; their problems are larger than life. I don’t want to sound like I’m coming down on all literary fiction everywhere. However, this book demonstrates some of the common flaws in literary fiction that will make me harder on a book of its ilk. Nobody ever stops having sex. Nobody ever says, “Gee, I could avoid this drama if I just talk to someone.” To her credit, Meloy keeps the drama below “hysterical” levels, and so A Family Daughter feels only contrived, not truly absurd. Much with Liars and Saints, this is a bland novel whose structure is intriguing but whose semiotics remain insufferable.