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Slight Return

By Margaret Black

A Family Daughter

By Maile Meloy

Scribner, 325 pages, $24

Three years ago, Maile Meloy published her first novel, Liars and Saints, to great acclaim. It is a tightly written chronicle about four generations of the Santerre family, French-Canadian Catholics who settle in California during the Second World War. Secrets, mistakes, jealousies, misunderstandings, love, indifference, faith, and despair push and pull the very engaging family members through the changing times of the later 20th century. It is, however, no lumbering family saga. The style is episodic, with short moments sketching the past and implying the future. Everyone gets a chance to talk, and each voice is utterly individual. These are engaging, believable, human-scale people whose lives and concerns are instantly recognizable.

Readers were therefore understandably delighted to learn that the Santerres were once again the focus in Meloy’s new novel, A Family Daughter. Yes, it was odd that the central character seemed to be Amy, a young woman who had died in Liars and Saints, but perhaps this volume would give greater details about what happened when she was still alive.

Very quickly, however, you realize that A Family Daughter is not a sequel, at least not in any ordinary sense. The mode of narration is the same, short episodes told by different characters, but in A Family Daughter the Santerres have slightly or greatly different experiences than those they had in the first book, and Amy, in order to explore and come to terms with her experiences in this version of the story, writes a novel called Liars and Saints. Besides an admiring public, the book also wins Amy the annoyance, confusion, bemusement, and fury of her various family members, who dispute her characterizations and many of the events she depicts.

Obviously author Meloy’s enterprise here is much more interesting if you read both her novels, but it is a tribute to her very considerable talent that each book can be read separately with great enjoyment. Liars and Saints has the crisp, assured construction of a family history that guarantees its authenticity by sheer authorial aplomb. It’s neat without being sterile, and even its extravagances seem reasonable—all characteristics that should clue you in to the fact that it is a fiction, rather than the family biography it pretends to be. A Family Daughter, on the other hand, dangles loose ends and includes some characters and actions so improbable you figure they have to be true, yet at the same time the main elements of the family relationships are more ordinary and hence more credible than those in Liars and Saints.

The more-or-less stable elements of the story are that Teddy Santerre marries Yvette Grenier in California just before he’s sent as a pilot to the Pacific in World War II. They immediately produce two daughters, Margot and Clarissa, and then Teddy is called up again to fly in Korea. Then in Margot’s junior year, she goes to France to spend a year with relatives. Yvette, apparently pregnant with a late baby, spends most of that same year in a convent. When she actually delivers, however, she’s in France, on a visit to Margot. She comes home with a son, James. And so the first major question arises: Is James Yvette’s son or Margot’s?

Well-organized, efficient Margot marries a successful young man, and they lead a respectable upper-middle-class suburban life far away in Louisiana. Jealous, dissatisfied, middle-child Clarissa marries, has a daughter (Amy), divorces, and then searches for happiness and meaning through a phone book of lovers, both male and female. Through her we see a lot of California’s countercultural ’60s and ’70s. James, although warm, loving, charming, and musical, never takes hold, so he is a disappointment—though not a grave one—to Teddy. As a relatively neglected child, Amy is very fond of James, either her uncle or her cousin. Later she has an affair with him.

Hereafter the plots diverge wildly, but both contain a child for whom James is the only consistent parent and certain other characters who are recognizably the same in both books but who play different roles. Both books conclude with a death, although not of the same person, and both put on a wonderful closing party (although one is ebulliently counter-sentimental) that brings together all the characters, even the more tangential ones.

The role of Amy’s novel in A Family Daughter gives a fascinating extra dimension to that tale, even as a stand-alone reading experience. Everyone’s version of their own family story is at odds with the versions of other family members, and that truism is even more emphatically the case when an author writes fiction that employs what everyone regards as biographical material. Meloy’s dexterous play with such conceits makes an intrinsically interesting story truly unusual. And when both two novels are considered together, the echoes and effects are truly startling.


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