A Family Daughter By Maile Meloy

Like Saffron's too-perfect breasts, it doesn't feel like the real thing
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The Independent Culture

Maile Meloy's latest Californian saga kicks off with incest, a fatal car accident and plenty of close-ups of Malibu blondes. With its pulpish scenarios and peony-pink cover, A Family Daughter initially keeps its more serious literary credentials under wraps.

If possible, Meloy's new novel should be read in conjunction with her debut, Liars and Saints, short-listed for the 2005 Orange Prize. That bestseller introduced the Santerre family, a tightly knit clan of Hermosa Beach Catholics with love lives as complicated as their family tree. A Family Daughter revisits the Santerres and shares characters and narrative cues, but it is soon clear that the fictional fault-lines are shifting beneath our feet.

In Liars and Saints, granddaughter Abby has a one-night stand with her uncle Jamie, gets pregnant and dies of cancer. In the "sequel", Abby sleeps with her uncle - more than once - doesn't get pregnant, and writes a novel. When we finally clock that Abby's novel is in fact the text of Liars and Saints - a re-imagining of her family's past - Meloy leaves us to ponder the nature of authorial responsibility.

Metafictional games aside, A Family Daughter can stand alone as a sunny slice of Californian gothic. Opening in 1979, it follows Abby through a dysfunctional childhood to adulthood. A child of divorce, she has always been close to her uncle Jamie, a guitar-playing drop-out 12 years her senior. When Abby enrols at college, uncle and niece bow to the inevitable. The many consequences of their illicit union - involving a socialite called Saffron, a Romanian orphan, a renegade Jesuit and a French playboy - are so baroque as to merit several trips to the campus shrink and the local priest.

On many levels, Meloy's attempt to squeeze blockbuster excess into a more elegant literary form is a success. In short, cliff-hanging chapters, she keeps us entertained with vignettes of life on the Pacific rim. The collision of Catholic mumbo-jumbo and Californian flakiness finds perfect expression in Clarissa, Abby's mother, who seeks salvation in love affairs and ends up sleeping with a large sandy woman as a test of faith.

The novel reaches for moments of genuine emotional resonance: the jilted husband facing life alone over a bowl of cereal is as devastating as an Alice Munro miniature. More often than not, however, Meloy's pert prose, like Saffron's too-perfect West Coast breasts, ends up feeling like a substitute for the real thing.