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A Family Daughter (2006)

A Family Daughter (2006)
3.41 of 5 Votes: 1
074327766X (ISBN13: 9780743277662)
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A Family Daughter (2006)
A Family Daughter (2006)

About book: Once upon a time I sat down to read a book called Liars and Saints, which I had noticed in a piece in TIME magazine. I had bought the book with the intent of giving it as a gift, but after reading it I thought better: although not completely terrible, Liars and Saints possessed nothing to recommend it, inhabiting that wasteland of contrived implausibilities that seems to be the home of so much literary fiction. Generations pass in a matter of pages, sex is had, and babies get made. It was rather standard, rather bland fare for that type of novel.Apparently I am a robot who merely follows his to-read list unquestioningly: A Family Daughter was on the list; it was available at my library; I borrowed it. I didn’t look at the description, so it wasn’t until I started reading and saw the names “Abby” and “Yvette”. Those sounded vaguely familiar—was this a sequel? A prequel? What had I gotten myself into?It turns out A Family Daughter is related to Maile Meloy’s previous novel, but not in the conventional sense. Instead, it swallows the universe of Liars and Saint, which turns out to be a somewhat-fictional family history as written by this book’s version of Abby Collins! This is very meta, and normally I love metafiction. Maybe it’s a holdover from my days of high school drama class and a perverse fascination with breaking the fourth wall; certainly I like when authors self-deprecatingly portray themselves or their own work in the story. However, the simple metafictional nature of A Family Daughter is nowhere near intriguing enough to save it from its numerous flaws.I got out the sticky notes around page 6. I don’t ordinarily take notes while reading, resorting to a sticky only when I need to ensure I can find a specific page—usually for a quotation. Sometimes I use stickies while reading non-fiction, in order to remind myself of points I want to address in my review. When I break out the stickies en masse for fiction, it’s usually a bad sign: I’m not just going to criticize this book; I’m going to itemize my criticism.The sticky on page 6 reads, “One-line descriptions” and was prompted by this passage:Yvette stood at the kitchen counter wondering what part of her daughter’s selfishness was her fault. Had she not given Clarissa enough attention when she was Abby’s age? Had her other children distracted her—Margot, who was older and perfect, and Jamie, who was younger and troubled?I don’t want to make too much of this, because all writers make choices, and sometimes the best choice is the most expedient one. And I admit that my recollection of Liars and Saints did not leave me favourably disposed to this book. However, I still balk when I read the above passage, not because it’s particularly bad writing, but because it just seems to pigeonhole this book as “literary” more than any genre snobbery on my part could. Through these pithy and simplistic descriptions, Meloy reminds us that we don’t really need to pay attention to these characters, because they are all just stereotypes and caricatures. In general, the characters in this book are either flat and unremarkable—like Peter, the TA and Abby’s sometime love interest—or completely unbelievable—like Saffron, Katya, et al. Teddy, the Santerre family patriarch, is a textbook case of the crotchety old man:The receptionist had a nice voice, and dark hair. Teddy made an appointment on a computer screen to have somebody’s grandson put a sonic probe into his eyes and then suck out the lens and put in a folded-up new one, and he gave the pretty woman Yvette’s e-mail address. He had begun life, he reflected, with the radio, the telegraph, and the Victrola, and he had been perfectly happy with those.(I swear it wasn’t just because of that last line that I chose to highlight this passage, although it does make the technophile in me cringe.) I think Meloy is trying to be funny here, or at least cute, with such turns of phrase as “somebody’s grandson”. Alas, it falls flat, because it might be entertaining, but it does nothing to deepen Teddy’s character. Throughout the book, he is this one-note instrument: he’s disappointed with his son for never making anything of his life; he’s chronically unable to perceive Clarissa’s flirtation with lesbianism; he has, in general, checked out of much of family life because of his aging senses.I’ll say this for Liars and Saints: at least the stories of more of its characters were accessible. A Family Daughter follows mostly Abby and Jamie, with brief but unsatisfying detours toward Clarissa and a therapist (more on her later). We get a glimpse at Teddy’s backstory, and a little more from Yvette, but that’s about it. This is not the multigenerational story that Liars and Saints aspired to be—and that would be fine, if it stood alone. Since it seems to inhabit a parallel universe, I feel adrift: how much do I really know about this Teddy? How much can I assume is the same as what I learned about him in Liars and Saints? There are all these echoes in my mind, and I’m not sure what’s real.I kind of like the therapist character, if only because it’s so rare for a book with characters in therapy to show us the other side of the table, so to speak. Meloy writes, “Leila Tirrett was a psychologist with a Ph.D. and problems of her own”, and aside from attempting to sound ironic, I like that she humanizes the character this way. Suddenly she’s no longer just a third party who listens to Abby’s problems and confessions: she’s a real person, with her own issues, and Abby is just the latest patient in her life.Small moments like the one above prevent me from condemning A Family Daughter completely. Like Liars and Saints, it is not so much terrible as just unremarkable. That might sound weird, considering that this book is full of improbable events. There’s a Romanian orphan who turns out to be the son of a Hungarian prostitute—who wants him back. Jamie ends up marrying the mother and adopting the orphan, and they move from Argentina to the United States to attempt a happily ever after ending (I will let you guess how that works for them). There’s a reason that we say truth is often stranger than fiction, for we tend to require our fiction be realistic, that events flow logically from their cause. When they don’t, it becomes absurd. Mixing absurdism with attempts to create powerful dramas is a dangerous business. Adept authors can come up with something akin to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but most of the time, you get something more along the lines of The Hitman Diaries. I know where A Family Daughter lies along this spectrum.I would like to think that Meloy is attempting something clever and, yes, risky. Her metafictional novel-within-the-novel, while not entirely novel to me, is still an intriguing premise that should have gone a long way to making me enjoy this book. Unfortunately, the plot and characters themselves are just so literary in the most pretentious sense of that term; their problems are larger than life. I don’t want to sound like I’m coming down on all literary fiction everywhere. However, this book demonstrates some of the common flaws in literary fiction that will make me harder on a book of its ilk. Nobody ever stops having sex. Nobody ever says, “Gee, I could avoid this drama if I just talk to someone.” To her credit, Meloy keeps the drama below “hysterical” levels, and so A Family Daughter feels only contrived, not truly absurd. Much with Liars and Saints, this is a bland novel whose structure is intriguing but whose semiotics remain insufferable.

Written in 2006, “A Family Daughter” turns Meloy’s 2003 “Liars and Saints,” a novel about a Catholic family keeping secrets from one another, upside down. Wonderfully complicated, creative and inventive, this novel explains “Liars and Saints” was a work of fiction written by Abby, a grand daughter; “A Family Daughter” surfaces the buried memories/secrets/old hurts and rolls out the attempts of the multi-generational Santerra family as they knowingly or not seek understanding, resolution and redemption.I bookmarked so many passages within the novel that I know will not mean as much to another reader; Meloy’s writing captivates me. Yvette, the matriarch, trying valiantly to hold the family together and yet, missing her father all her life following the time when she left Canada and married Teddy in 1942…”She had thought she could leave her attachment to him behind, when the war began and she moved to California…and time passed so quickly and her father died of the old wound. She had missed so many years of his life, and he had missed so many of hers. It was her war injury, and it had worked its way out a little, in her heart. If she had sat very still, it might not do any more damage.”Yvette explaining to Abby while Abby seeking forgiveness…”We try so hard as parents, honey. We try to do better than our own parents did. But we carry those hurts with us…”Leila Tirrett to Abby…”This wanting to please everyone – it isn’t fair to give other people so much power. You tempt the greediest part of them.”Abby to Peter…”Czlslaw Milosz said that when a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”…”I keep thinking I brought a curse upon my family. I murdered my grandmother in a book, and I must be punished, but God has a sense of irony, so he took Teddy.”The parallels to the first novel are too many to note. We meet many characters who are absolute train wrecks, and yet over and over again, a mother’s love for a child is a “physical pull,” the redemptive piece. Comedic in so many places, the self absorption and self indulgence of characters often astounded me (e.g., Clarissa’s film.) “They’ve never paid any attention to me…they’ve never seen me…How can they love me if they don’t see me?”The final chapter parallels the first novel with all the players gathered in the family home following a funeral. A daughter has spoken at her father’s funeral…”You do want so much more for your children than life will ever offer them. He (Teddy, the father) wanted life to be understandable, and morally unambiguous, and not filled with strife. The defining event of his life was the war but he wanted…to be a channel of peace. He wanted to trust in God and saw faith and love like St. Francis which is difficult always to do.” Circling back to the novel’s beginning, there are conflicting feelings shared about wanting to stay and wanting to go, musings about what makes a good life, about moving on or lapsing into sadder behaviors, but the family has come together in the end (just as in the “novel”) because of a death.
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I came to this book because I loved Maile Meloy's short stories, particularly in "Half in Love" but also "Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It." What I discovered, again, is that the genius of the short story is not necessarily the genius of the novel. The spareness of Meloy's writing seems to add depth in her stories; in her novel it seemed to deny depth. I definitely enjoyed reading it, and debated giving it four stars for that reason, but it struck me, in the end, as a gossipy novel about what happens in and to one family that doesn't offer without much insight translatable to the world around me. Nor did I feel attached to the characters, even the main one, even though I liked her. I'm hoping the author's going to spend more of her time on short stories in the future.(Note: I learned only from other Goodreads reviews that "A Family Daughter" is linked to her earlier novel "Liars and Saints." That gives me more incentive to seek out the earlier one at some point.)
This companion to Liars and Saints neatly turns the first one on its head. Like the first one, it manages to encompass vast periods of time in a few pages, and it delivers on the emotion without feeling like an over-the-top saga. I enjoyed revisiting the characters, and seeing how things could be different. I couldn't help but wonder if people had speculated about any autobiographical elements in Liars and Saints, and if that prompted her to write this one. Which is funny because whether or not it was autobiographical never crossed my mind until Abby dealt with the same issue in this one. I think this one would be best appreciated if you've read Liars and Saints first.
I'm giving this 3 stars but I think that is a little high. I originally found this book and then realized that is was a sequel to "Liars and Saints" which has appeared some author's lists and has been mentioned in novels. Read it first; then this one, only to find out that it really is not a sequel but more or less a retelling of the first book, changing some things, adding some things and I would have thought that since she was possibly fleshing out the characters, it would have been more interesting. She told it in the same simple straightforward manner of her first book but I found myself really not caring and just wanting to get done. I was down with a cold while reading it which is why I'm sticking with 3 stars. If I had felt better, I may have enjoyed it more or I may have disliked it more.
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