Half-way into Liars and Saints, a young girl interrupts a conversation between two adults to ask the meaning of a word. "What's an adulterer?" she asks her uncle. Without a moment's hesitation the man replies, "It's a married adult."
This exchange, so bitterly wise, is a fine introduction to Maile Meloy's debut novel, shortlisted for the Orange prize. Liars and Saints is a tale about the bad things good people can do, even if trying to do the right thing.
The action begins in California around the start of the Second World War, when Teddy Santerre meets his future wife, Yvette. They marry, have a child, then part temporarily as Teddy is posted to the South Pacific. It is the first of many separations that test the family's loyalties.
One of Teddy and Yvette's children gets pregnant at 16 and must be sent to France to have the baby, while their other child marries a man who takes her to Hawaii. At 36, Yvette gets pregnant a third time and goes to a convent to have the child. It would be easy to make such plot points feel melodramatic, but Meloy gives her story shape and depth by writing from each character's point of view. We get to know this family from the inside out.
In response to her husband's neediness, Yvette seeks out the love of God, with whom she has a conflicted relationship. Following His word and what makes her happy have often been two different things in her life. The title of Meloy's debut story collection, Half in Love, could have worked here as well. The characters are in love with God but cannot always follow his ways. They love their spouses, but want lives of their own.
Meloy relies on a detached third-person voice to draw out such complex emotions, a decision that gives Liars and Saints an old-fashioned quality in this heyday of first-person narrators. Indeed, there is something refreshingly conservative about the design of this novel. Time progresses in a linear fashion, characters obey their creator, and Meloy does not fuss over her authorial omniscience.
As time passes and new children are born, Meloy continues to add new perspectives. Two more generations of Santerres enter the picture, shedding light on buried secrets and giving birth to new ones.
A half-century rolls by over the course of the novel, and Meloy evokes it in the most understated way: a news item here, putting a guitar in a character's hand there. Even in these scenes, her prose never calls attention to itself; it exists to serve her characters, who quietly but quickly take on lives of their own.
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