Sometimes you have to call a spade a spade, and when a successful novelist boosts her career by publishing a second book that’s essentially just a rewrite of her popular first, you have to call it, at best, lazy.
When Helena native Maile Meloy introduced the Santerre family in her debut novel, Liars and Saints, readers were caught up in the tawdry multi-generational saga. Wives had affairs, girls got pregnant and—most notably of all—Abby, granddaughter to the brood, had an affair with her Uncle Jamie, gave birth to his child, and then, in a manner reminiscent of dear sickly Beth from Little Women, died at novel’s end. A smashing success among readers and critics alike, Liars and Saints was short-listed for the 2005 Orange Prize.
End of story? Sort of and not really.
Meloy’s recently released second novel, A Family Daughter, is not a sequel to the first. It is, as her publisher calls it, a reimagining. Employing what Publisher’s Weekly called a “crafty new angle,” Meloy has protagonist Abby recover from family events—including a period of consensual incest with adorable yet distressed Uncle Jamie—by writing a semi-autobiographical novel about her family. The trick that allows Meloy to double-dip into the Santerre saga is that Liars and Saints becomes the novel within the narrative of A Family Daughter, which purports to be the “true” story.
In terms of precedent, it should be noted that some of the greatest novelists, most notably William Faulkner, have created characters who reappear in different novels. At the other end of the spectrum, writers of the television show “Dallas” resurrected the character of Bobby Ewing a year and a half after he died by dismissing his death (and the entire dud of a season following it) as merely a bad dream suffered by his wife.
So is Meloy another Faulkner or a television hack? Neither label seems quite right. Although the Ewing brood is just as compelling as the Santerres, Meloy’s depiction of their domestic reality is—at its best—elegant and even chilling. Her knowledge of the people who populate her novels illustrates a deepening sympathy for human weakness.
Meloy, however, is no Faulkner. While Faulkner’s ability to reinvent different situations for the same characters was part of his identity as a writer, those recurrences enriched the ever-expansive narrative of his novels; the story continued to deepen and unfold in all directions. In Meloy’s case, her second novel is merely a different version of the first. Meloy’s technique is neither crafty nor even particularly literary; her angle seems simply a gimmick that exploits the popularity of her first novel.
And there can be little doubt that fans of Liars and Saints will get a genuine kick out of this second take on the Santerre family. The novel, though, leaves one with the nagging feeling that Meloy has already signed a miniseries deal with the Lifetime network. In addition to its different takes on the same plot lines in Liars and Saints, this new novel has Abby and Jamie commingling with a slutty heiress, an aging French playboy and a Hungarian prostitute. Torrid and epic, the novel begs us to care about this family and the number of different versions Meloy is capable of reimagining. The affront to readers arrives in the form of a self-consciously literary ploy that screams of “high art,” when really A Family Daughter moves from scandalous event to scandalous event with the fickleness of junior high school students who find new best friends every week. While admirers are correct to point out the smooth writing, this novel feels like a rewrite from a writer who just didn’t feel like making concrete choices.
Some admiring critics have called Meloy the first great American realist of the 21st century. They call to evidence a style that is sparsely detailed and seemingly without emotion, in a manner recalling Raymond Carver. Meloy’s chapters are indeed short and even-toned; despite this, she cheapens her illustration of domestic reality by steering her characters in and out of a melodrama that undermines any claims to the minimalism associated with Carver. The lives of Meloy’s saints and liars change at such a pace as to give this novel the impact of a farce, rather than a true drama of an American family.