Ever anticipate a book, then sit down and read the first chapter and get a sinking feeling as you realize your expectations are most certainly going to be dashed? Yeah, that's how Liars and Saints made me feel. Although it was already on my to-read list, I bumped it to the top because I intended to read it and then give it to a friend for her birthday. I think I'll be revising that plan to "read and donate to the library."
To be fair, Maile Meloy is a good writer. Liars and Saints is wonderfully written, lyrical even. Its narrative approach is very episodic, as it focuses on a single character during a particular moment or event in his or her life. And I was very impressed with how she integrated the events of the twentieth century into the background of the Santerre family. Liars and Saints reminded me how difficult it is for me to understand what it would have felt like to be an American adult male during the Vietnam War. I'm lucky to have been born much later than that, and to live in Canada, so I've never had the draft looming over me. Watching Henry's reaction to the Vietnam War was probably my favourite part of this book.
So Meloy's writing shares none of the guilt. It is, as seems so often the case in the books I've been reading lately, a problem of plot. Meloy is trying to tell a sweeping generational story that is large in scope yet intimate in scale. She wants to cover four generations, from Teddy and Yvette down to their great-grandson TJ. My edition is 260 pages long. I won't say it's impossible to do justice to such a goal in such a short amount of space, but it is very, very difficult, and Liars and Saints fails to convince me it has succeeded here.
I'm supposed to sympathize with these characters. Their plights, their mistakes and misdeeds, have to tug at my heartstrings. Maybe I'm a monster, but that doesn't happen here, and this is partly owing to the way Meloy has chosen to tell her story. The narrative is scant and condensed. I feel like I'm watching a film of the book. Margot and Clarissa go from being babies to young adults in less than fifty pages, and I never get any time to know them. One minute Clarissa's being punished by nuns, then suddenly a few pages later, she's going to university. I've heard of children growing up too fast, but this is ridiculous.
For some books, jumping over large swathes of time is fine. For generational stories, it's probably a requirement, unless you want to plod through every single detail: "On Tuesday, Olaf woke up. He milked goat. He ate breakfast. He ploughed field." But the depth of field of this book is virtually non-existent. I don't want to call it shallow, because I don't want to give the wrong impression: I think Meloy invokes some very powerful issues, and the way she handles them is interesting. But I don't feel involved in the story, nor am I invested in the characters. It reads more like plot summary, or a very detailed outline of the book.
Also, I'm going to throw this out there: we really need some genre-savvy literary fiction siblings (maybe that's an oxymoron, considering that "literary fiction" is exactly the mainstream answer to the ghettoization of genre). If you are a character in a literary fiction novel and you have a sibling of the opposite sex, do not sleep with them. If you have a niece or nephew, an aunt or an uncle, who is actually your cousin, do not sleep with them. Why? Because in literary fiction, a single make-out section results in a 100% chance of conception. It's, like, the law.
I'm being tongue-in-cheek, and I probably shouldn't be too harsh on Meloy for the constant sexual consequences she rains down upon her characters like disasters in SimCity. This is, after all, fiction (and literary fiction at that), so it's meant, to some extent, to be contrived. Nevertheless, I have to admit that reading a book as contrived as Liars and Saints requires a certain mood, a certain willingness to enter not so much suspension of disbelief as tolerance for the trite and improbable. It's like a soap opera, except without the amnesia or fake dead relatives, and Meloy at least has a handle on some sort of theme.
This review is shorter than what I usually write, and it's not as detailed. There's just not a lot I want to say about Liars and Saints. I didn't like it all that much, but it didn't make me hate it with a passion, so I can't even enjoy writing a snarky, scene-by-scene rebuttal! It's tolerable, maybe even good, but a little bland and boring: there is nothing about it that I feel particularly recommends it above any other book of its kind. In fact, after the first chapter, it reminded me in tone of Fall on Your Knees. And you know, I keep going around saying that Fall on Your Knees is one of my favourite books, but it has been years since I read it, and my memory is very hazy. So I thought, why not buy Fall on Your Knees for my friend's birthday gift? And why not read it forthwith? So that's the best thing I can say about Liars and Saints: it has motivated me to finally re-read a treasured book. That's some kind of praise, I suppose.