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Liars and Saints

Maile Meloy's Liars and Saints (Scribner, 2003) is a hard book to put down. It's a hard book to write about, too. Crammed with incident, and full of small but meaningful surprises, it might easily be spoiled by review. The salience of the surprises makes the novel difficult entirely to trust; there is more than a whiff of soap-opera reversal in the tone of its development. At times, Ms Meloy seems to intend an overarching Message, but I can't make out what it is, possibly because it might be a little on the banal side. Most of the time, happily, Ms Meloy seems to have nothing more in mind than capturing, in naturalistic prose, the peripeties of a family saga. You might want to read the book before reading this.

Composed of 44 shortish chapters, Liars and Saints follows Yvette and Teddy Santerre and their descendants over nearly sixty years, from their marriage in the middle of World War II to a sad family reunion in the late 90s. Yvette is at the center of the book, even after the narrative preoccupies itself with her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchild. What distinguishes Yvette from everyone else in her family is her Catholic faith, which is absolute and almost saintly. It's faith far too serene to analyze, but I came to feel that its root is Yvette's gratitude for her beauty. Yvette is not vain, but she finds it easy to believe in and trust a God who has made her a lovely woman - and then, later, given her a happy marriage.

She finds happiness in her marriage to Teddy. Not everyone would. Teddy is a jealous man, convinced that other men are after his wife, and shortly after he returns from a second stint in the military, this time in Korea, Yvette tells him something that raises his guard more or less permanently. While he was away, she met a photographer on the beach (the novel is set largely in California) who persuaded her to let him take a formal portrait of her with her two daughters, and when the shoot was done - she'd had a cocktail - he suddenly embraced and kissed her. There was nothing more to it than that, although the photographer, when he returned with the prints, made it clear that he'd like to try again. Disturbed by the kiss, Yvette mentioned it in the confessional, and as part of her penance the priest obliged her to tell her husband. This she does against her better judgment, and the incident becomes a pebble that Teddy cannot get out of his shoe. He's right about the men, and despite evidence to the contrary he doubts that Yvette is strong enough to resist them.

She didn't know where Teddy kept the envelope [containing the prints], or if he kept it, but she knew he had become a different man, not as hard as he was that night, but with more of the Marine Corps in his everyday voice and more suspicion in his eyes. He left the Reserves and took his job at North American again, and they settled into a life together that felt like a truce.

So ends the first chapter. Ms Meloy handles the entire episode with a dispatch that would be breathtaking if it weren't so fluent, compressed into the novel's opening fifteen pages. This fluency persuades the reader that nothing extraordinary is going on, an illusion that greatly intensifies connections with the characters.

The little Santerre girls, Margot and Clarissa, are very different. Clarissa is troubled by a restless discontent while Margot, who is not the prig her younger sister thinks she is, finds great comfort and significance in the observance of correct form. These are the principal elements of Yvette's faith, but having one without the other nips each daughter's hope of real happiness. Margot, who inherits her mother's good looks, dries out over time, numbed by her inability to have children with her husband, Owen, invariably presented as "a good man." Clarissa's marriage to Henry Collins seems more promising, but it falls apart when Henry pours himself into a political career.

Each daughter has a child. Margot's, conceived after a prom when her school's dance instructor whisks her off in his car, is born in France, where Yvette has relatives, and for most of the novel none but mother and daughter know that little Jamie is not Yvette's third child. It is to this deception, undertaken to save Margot's life from ruin, that the title refers; another lie about parentage will haunt the next generation. I might have found the plotting rather improbable if I hadn't actually known of a real-life example of the same saving deception, and I suppose that in the days before abortion such things happened whenever anyone had the cleverness and presence of mind to make them happen. What I was not so sure of was the connection that the author seems to make between Jamie's obscured heritage and his resistance to all authority, as if to suggest, too symbolically for my taste, that until he finds out who his father is he cannot accept the meaning of fatherhood.

Clarissa's daughter, Abby, is bright and self-assured, and after her divorce, Clarissa is vexed to find that the child behaves as though she were her mother's older sister. Abby is raised in her father's pagan faith, which Henry, speaking of his own father, describes in an early chapter.

He says he's a Great Westerner - he believes in a God like the cowboys had, out where there weren't any churches. You don't owe anything to it, and you can't count on it to do anything for you, but it's the force in things. I guess I believe in something like that.

Such a faith couldn't be further from Yvette's, and Clarissa makes an eager convert. I suspect that the author shares her faith. Ms Meloy never condescends to Catholicism, never takes any of the by now clichéd pokes at its rituals and hierarchy. The priests who figure throughout the narrative are all distinct individuals, not representatives of a class, and if they remain somewhat mysterious, so do all the other characters in Liars and Saints. The author has perfected a manner of allowing the mysteries of character to register for a brief moment and then briskly moving on with the story, and I hope that her future work will develop this unblinking recognition; it could degenerate into a trick.

At fourteen, Abby decides that she would rather live with her father, but he rebuffs her, pointing out that he's never home. After this, she finds that the Great Western Faith doesn't work for her: "her life had begun to feel less real to her." We're told this on page 139. Within ten pages, she has not only lost her virginity but conceived the child for whose life she will sacrifice her own: on page 163 - and I cite the page numbers to show how quickly this short book moves - Abby learns that she's got a bad cancer in her jaw, and that treating it will probably terminate her pregnancy. Everyone tries to talk her into saving her own life, but Abby has become a Catholic.

The calm stayed: Jamie had considered her conversion to be a symptom of trauma, but Abby seemed permanently changed. It was like a vacuum suddenly filled her. He hoped her old secular sensibility - or basic selfishness - might return and change her mind, and make her start the treatments. But she wouldn't risk killing the baby, and she was unshakable in her decision.

The third part of the book, which begins after Abby's death, is about how Jamie finally finds himself. With Abby's baby in tow, he tracks down his father, the former dance instructor, now something of a shaman, in New Mexico, and here he sojourns for three or four years before tracking down two other people from his teens: a handsome priest who taught him how to play the guitar (but who was banished from the house by a jealous Teddy, not, once again, without reason), and the girl with whom he enjoyed a robust and precocious sex life. Like a maiden in a fairy tale, Gail has lived a suspended life since Yvette broke up her relationship with Jamie, and when he finds her, living quietly on an island in Puget Sound, it is hard not to think of "The Sleeping Beauty."

That would not be the only myth to resonate in Liars and Saints. I have a few wishes to make on behalf of Maile Meloy's next novel. May it be a little longer, and a little more attentive to characters such as Margot (of whom it's an understatement to say that she gets short shrift), while omitting characters such as Yvette's mother, who has a chapter all to herself that adds nothing whatsoever to the Santerre story but seems calculated to pile on the richness of a fifth generation. I hope that Ms Meloy will learn to think better of such sentences as the one above about the vacuum. Most of all, I hope that the author will spend a little more time unpacking her characters' ideas, which in Liars and Saints float about insubstantially and seem as changeable as clothes - regrettable in a novelist with so palpable an interest in faith and religion. (October 2003)

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