A Family Daughter by Maile Meloy

Stripped down to the emotional undies
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The Independent Culture

In A Family Daughter, Meloy's second novel, it's good news: the Santerres are back, stripped again to their emotional underwear. Meloy kicks off with an incident from Abby's childhood, but soon refers to (supposedly childless) Margot's sons. Other prickling anomalies crop up, establishing an interference pattern with the lives mapped out so clearly in Liars and Saints. Gradually, Meloy's debut emerges substantively intact in A Family Daughter as a novel written by Abby. This defuses the reader's growing irritation at those unexplained contradictions with a terrific piece of literary re-engineering, taking familiar, complex characters and subtly altering the psychological landscape around them.

Launched as a fiction, Abby's book is deemed transparently autobiographical, written partly as expiation for the regrets that are choking her own life. The public washing of so much family laundry (whose stains made Liars and Saints so enthralling) engenders a fresh, re-configured matrix of guilt and discord, giving Meloy effectively a second bite at the burstingly ripe cherry.

The dense substance of both books is intensely realised relationships freighted with guilt, mostly caused by conflicting desires and perceived social rules and duties. Catholicism doesn't come out of it well. A Family Daughter does not require knowledge of its predecessor, but is augmented by it. Meloy's literary device necessarily smirches the clean lines of Liars and Saints and as a result her new novel is more congested. The early plot feels over-elaborate and, in too many places, reliant on coincidences contrived so that Meloy can follow the same choreography as in her debut plot. Both are rewarding, the debut stronger and more direct compared to this new book's slightly over-written cleverness, but I'd recommend a settling gap between them to avoid unnecessary confusion. Just time enough, in fact, to relish her terse, Proulx-like short story collection, Half in Love.

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