Sunday, November 25, 2007

"I felt I had every right to use the symbols of the Church and resented being told not to." *

I read Maile Meloy’s Liars and Saints on a whim last week. I vaguely recalled some fanfare about Meloy’s first novel when it came out in 2004, but the whole “saga of an American Catholic family” just didn’t really catch my interest. Besides, if you’ve read Thorn Birds, do you really need a saga of another Catholic family, American, Australian, or otherwise?

A little research revealed terrific reviews from reputable sources, and a nomination to the Orange Prize longlist. (Funnily enough, the other three books I tried to read from that same longlist – Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Mammoth Cheese, and The Great Stink – were disappointing.)

So I brought it home from the library where it long ago had made its way to the general fiction shelves, and started it with not much in the way of expectations. I had for whatever reason lumped it in my mind with Mameve Medwed’s innocuous, chick-litty books, so figured on a quick and possibly pleasant read.

I couldn’t put it down.
From the first sentence, when a young Yvette Grenier marries her military pilot sweetheart before sending him off to World War Two, I was completely intrigued and had to find out what happened next. Not that it was a breathless, headlong rush – no, Meloy’s prose is cool and elegant and oddly removed from its complex characters and their passion-inspired actions. Her pacing is perfect – precise details are given when needed, with Meloy expertly filling in gaps in the action to quickly reach the next important event when necessary. It’s not often that you read a three-hundred page book seamlessly covering fifty years.

There were times when I felt that Meloy was experimenting with her medium, throwing in plot twists and events that were just strange enough to be completely true to the story (the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction mythology only aids Meloy in her endeavor), to see if the reader was paying attention, or if her characters were, or both.

When I stopped by the library to return several other books, I picked up Meloy’s sequel to Liars, A Family Daughter. I don’t want to spoil the read for anyone, but it is equally as compelling as its precursor, and its meta-ness greatly appeals to the geek in me. Meloy’s cleverness, exploring alternate realities for the same characters and playing with displaying her craft within her craft, put me in mind of AS Byatt’s Babel Tower and John Fowles’ French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Liars and Daughter were the perfect duo of books to read the same week that H and I watched Bill Murray in “The Life Aquatic.” While beautifully filmed, with some entertainingly quirky performances (especially by Cate Blanchett and Willem Dafoe), it’s a very strange little movie that could have used a stronger, defter editor’s hand and reminded me very much of a Coen Brothers outing. The conceit of making a movie within a movie was mostly stilted, and there were aspects of the filming that I am sure seemed much more clever in theory than in actual realization (the cutaway scenes of the boat, for example). But like Meloy’s novels (but not nearly so clever), the whole endeavor had a very meta feel to it, like you had opened the door into a private, unedited screening of someone’s personal journey captured on film almost accidentally, and the creator was annotating as you followed along.

So there’s my trifecta recommendation for the weekend:
Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter, coupled with “The Life Aquatic.”

I don’t think you can lose.

**************

* Andres Serrano

6 comments:

Sarah Louise said...

Hmmm, sounds like something watchable --and I am in for something sweep me away saga-ish, haven't read anything like that for ages. Thanks!

xo,

SL

Steph said...

Those books sound great, I'll look for them. I just read last night a short article on her in the latest Oprah magazine -- and really liked it.

nutmeg said...

You see, I quite liked The Great Stink (though, the ending was a bit lame and therefore a let down) and Tractors - I had a few good chuckles from this book - which is always a winne with me but my sister is currently reaing it and she says the characters are annoyiing the heck out of her!

I have picked up Saints and Liars a few times (I actually cam across it just the other day for a couple of bucks) and have heard about that meta-twist in the second - does sound v. good :-)

Liz said...

What do you think of Laura Moriarty? I just started her newest.

TLB said...

I liked, but did not love, Liars and Saints...felt the big plot twist was kind of forced. I do have her story collection, which I've been meaning to read for a while.

Do you know her brother is the lead singer for The Decemberists?

blackbird said...

I applaud your energy - and I know how difficult it can be to photography these outings!