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Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy


Rating: (Highly Recommended)


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Family Ties and Lies

It’s a rare debut novel that earns our four-star rating, and Maile Meloy’s first novel, Liars and Saints, earned it handily. Using the spare writing style practiced in her short stories, Meloy tackles the novel by telling the complicated story of four generations of an American family from the 1940s to the present. All the characters are both liars and saints, as are we all. Meloy uses the opportunity of unusal events to showcase ordinary human nature, and unfolds us for who we are with poise and grace. While the characters in Franzen’s award-winning novel of the Midwestern family, The Corrections, were unlikeable, Meloy’s characters are not only likeable, but even when we see them tied up in their lies and misbehavior, we like them, and want to spend more time with them. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 4, pp. 32-7:

Margot was a quick study, and she liked rules and appreciated their function—there wasn't anything more to it than that. She wasn't Saint Margot, as her sister called her, and she wasn't a prig. She liked the rules of church: don't let the sun go down on your anger, do unto others, turn the other cheek. She loved the systems at school: the sonnet form, geometry, and fox-trot. By eighth grade she understood that there was a way to dress and to comport yourself, which affected how others treated you, and she understood how easily she had avoided Clarissa's difficulty with grown-ups and nuns. Her sister knew it, too; it was why Clarissa hated her. It was in Margot's nature to please.

In high school, when Miss Blair and Mr. Tucker came to Sacred Heart to teach dancing lessons, and Miss Blair went round the circle of girls giving makeup tips, she stopped when she got to Margot and shook her head. "I've never seen a girl so perfectly groomed," she said.

Margot smiled at Miss Blair, embarrassed. She slept in curlers to make her hair bob at her shoulders, but her lashes were dark and thick without anything on them, and her eyebrows arched on their own.

"I have nothing to offer," Miss Blair said. "I'm slumped."

Mr. Tucker, who danced like a prince, did not seem to be slumped by Margot at all. When Miss Blair was busy correcting the girls on the other side of the gym, he would cut in, stranding whichever girl Margot was dancing with, and fox-trot Margot all over the floor. Other girls whispered it: she was the perfect partner he deserved. Miss Blair was too tall for him, and too severe. Margot was the right size; the top of her head came right to Mr. Tucker's nose. When they danced, the girls forgot their feet and watched—they only pretended to keep dancing, so Miss Blair wouldn't notice and stop the whole thing.

Once, when the music ended and Miss Blair was still on the other side of the gym, Mr. Tucker smiled at Margot in their finishing pose. "What a sweet, sweet face," he said.

Margot was happy, and could have gone on dancing in the gym once a week till the end of time. The other girls daydreamed about Mr. Tucker, but he had chosen her, and she didn't need to daydream.

Miss Blair and Mr. Tucker emceed the dances at Sacred Heart, when the girls decorated the gym and the boys came from Immaculata. Miss Blair called the dances, and Mr. Tucker gave prizes and made announcements. Mr. Tucker in a tuxedo was a glorious thing, especially compared with the skinny schoolboys. Margot's date for the spring dance at the end of her sophomore year was a boy named Hal Fitzhugh, who played basketball. He was a terrible dancer, his long arms and legs getting in his way. Margot tried to hide her disappointment, and Hal went off with some other Immaculata boys, saying he'd be back.

After a long time alone at a table in her blue chiffon dress, watching the other girls dance with their perfectly competent dates, she went looking for Hal. The air outside was fresh and cool in the dark, after the stuffy gym. She found Hal behind the building, passing a flask to another boy. He smelled like her mother's gin.

"You know that's not allowed," Margot said.

"A guy’s gotta have some fun."

"Dancing is fun," Margot said—though it hadn't been with him.

"Not with you, sweetheart," he said. "You're out there keeping score on what I do wrong."

The other boys laughed, and Margot looked around at them, flustered. She had never been brayed at like this before.

"You're like a coach we had," Hal went on. "Grumpy old bastard."

The boys laughed again.

"How dare you!" she said.

Hal grinned at her. "Drink?" He offered the flask.

Margot spun and left them there—not marching off, exactly, as it was hard to march in high heels on soft grass—unable to speak. She was just deciding whether to cry or not, when she rounded the comer of the building and bumped into Mr. Tucker.

"Mr. Tucker!" she said, and they both apologized; he held her elbow to steady her.

What happened then was a confused rush of images, as Margot reconstructed it later, but she remembered being kissed by Mr. Tucker, and her knees nearly giving way beneath her. She remembered following him to his white convertible, and riding in it. and looking over the ocean but not knowing exactly where.

She remembered his hands unzipping the blue chiffon dress her mother had made, and the softness of everything he did, and her feeling that all rules in the world had been suspended for this to happen, and how sweet that suspension was.

Mr. Tucker disappeared after that, as he always did when school was out, and Margot did her chores and thought about other things—but by August she couldn't ignore what had happened to her body. She knew what a girl had to do in this situation, and she told her mother. Yvette cried. Then she held Margot and told her it would be all right. She said there were some things you didn't have to tell people; it would only upset them to know, and wouldn't do them a bit of good. Margot thought she should go to confession, at least, and tell her father.

"No," her mother said. "You can leave the priests and your father out of it, and tell God on your own."

Then Yvette packed Margot's suitcase and sent her off to France.

The Planchets were distant cousins of her mother's: no one was sure of the exact connection. They lived in a drafty stone farmhouse in Lisieux in Normandy. Everyone at home thought Margot was just having her junior year abroad, working on her French. It made perfect sense. The Planchets knew the truth, but it didn't seem to bother them at all. They took her in and assigned her chores. She went to the local lyc~e withJean-Pierre Planchet, who was fourteen and still a boy, obsessed with his exams.

Jean-Pierre was scornful of Margot's French, and mocked her for it. "She speaks like a baby," he told his parents, and she guessed it was true. He spoke English to her, showing off, whenever the elder Planchets were out of the room. No one at school seemed to notice her condition; everyone knew American girls were un peu grosse, and she wore the loose jumpers her mother had sewn in a rush before she left.

M. Planchet loved America, and after a few glasses of wine he would lose his shyness and speak in English. He loved Margot's father, whom he had never met, for flying a fighter plane in the war. He loved to talk about the Chermans.

"Germans," Jean-Pierre would correct him.                 '

"Oui, ca. Les Boches. They were building these tanks from 1936. And you Americans started from the neutral, and made so many tanks—it is like a miracle."

"He thinks it's still the Occupation," Mme. Planchet would say in French. "Pay no attention."

"The Germans would come tomorrow if not for the Americans," M. Planchet insisted, in English. "But the atomic bomb: for this we can be thankful."

"Enough," his wife said.

M. Planchet shrugged. "Or you fight, or you lose," he said. "That's the war."

"Eityer you fight or you lose," his son corrected him.

"Oui!" he said. "C'est la guerre. "

Margot was never sick, and always hungry. She watched M. Planchet arrange the cold meat tray before the evening meal with his delicate hands. When he said, "Open your mouth and say thank you!" she did. What he popped onto her tongue was sometimes salty, sometimes smooth and rich, sometimes sweet.

"From Spanish pigs, who eat nothing but figs!" M. Planchet would say; or simply, "This is good for you, this!"

In the Planchets' kitchen was an earthenware jug filled with a dark red tissue that looked like raw liver, half submerged in red liquid, called la mire. After lunch and dinner, taking the dishes in to wash, Mme. Planchet poured the red wine from the bottom of each glass into the jug, feeding the mother. It was a kind of mushroom, she said, and it cured the wine, and from the spigot in the bottom of the jug came fresh red vinegar. Margot dutifully added the leftover wine, and the sharp vinegar smell pricked her nose, but after the first time she didn't look in at the shiny, organlike growth. It was such a grotesquerie. With that embarrassing name, and she had nothing in common with it and never would.

On Sundays the family went to Mass in the new Basilique dedicated to Therese Martin, and the statue of the young saint stared down at them. Mme. Planchet said that Therese had entered the convent at fifteen because she knew the temptations faced by young girls.

M. Planchet said, "Bah! To marry the Spouse of Virgins—what a life. You are better off, cherie"

After Mass, Margot helped prepare the Sunday meal, and poured the wine. She began to dream in French, and to think it strange that she had ever imagined her life without this detour from normal events. There was no question that it was only a detour—a long, eventful French dream—and that her life would resume its orderly course when it was done.

Readers of Liars and Saints have known the Santerres or have been them. That recognition opens readers to thinking about human nature in new ways, thanks to Meloy’s fine writing. If this book doesn’t win awards, it should.

Steve Hopkins, June 21, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the July 2003 issue of Executive Times

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