Dropping In for a While
Maile Meloy’s first novel, Liars and Saints (2003), told the story of five generations of the Santerre family, Catholic French Canadians displaced to Southern California, and later dispersed more widely across the United States and the rest of the world. The book – chosen as a Richard and Judy Summer Read, though that shouldn’t be held against it – begins with Teddy and Yvette’s wedding in Santa Barbara during the Second World War, and ends with Yvette’s funeral at the turn of the millennium. A narrative spanning nearly 60 years and more than 8000 miles (the distance from Rome to Hawaii), with half a dozen major characters whose various points of view are given more or less equal weight, all told in a mere 260 comfortably spaced pages: it could easily have been rushed, or cramped, with too much being told too quickly or too few sentences being forced to do too much work. And yet, almost miraculously, it isn’t either of those things, because Meloy (unlike, say, Jonathan Franzen) has such a sure handle on what to leave out. Her style is impressively unshowy: it’s not even showily unshowy, not seeing the need to draw attention to its pared-down restraint. The New Yorker left her off its fanfare-y list this summer of the 20 American writers under the age of 40 ‘who we believe are, or will be, key to their generation’ – but then who’d want to be that, and what does it even mean?
Constructed as a series of very short stories, Liars and Saints jumps from one significant event in the characters’ lives to the next, in roughly chronological order, sometimes leapfrogging over a gap of many years, sometimes picking up the morning after the previous chapter’s night before. Because the Santerres are a more or less ordinary family, the significant events in their lives are the more or less ordinary ones to do with sex, childbirth and death, though they bring with them slightly more than ordinary amounts of deceit, jealousy and guilt. While Teddy is flying planes in Korea, Yvette fights off the advances of a photographer who comes to the house to take a picture of her and the children to send to her husband. When Teddy comes home she tells him what happened, sending him into a jealous rage. Telling the truth, she realises, isn’t always the best course of action.
So several years later, when their elder daughter, Margot, gets pregnant by her high-school dancing teacher, Yvette sends the girl to a trustworthy and liberal-minded family of distant relatives in France (‘Everyone at home thought Margot was just having her junior year abroad, working on her French. It made perfect sense’), tells Teddy she’s pregnant herself and goes on retreat to a convent for her bogus confinement. When the time comes she finds a pretext to fly out to France to see Margot, and comes home with her baby boy, Jamie, whom everyone accepts without question as Yvette’s son. It’s all told so straightforwardly, and in such cool, unfussed prose, that you almost don’t notice (it makes perfect sense), and certainly don’t mind, how unlikely it all is, in some ways closer to medieval romance than suburban California realism, or even suburban California gothic. But if parts of Liars and Saints have the quality of fable, it’s because they are the stories of their lives as the characters tell them to themselves.