Genre: Historical Fiction, Adult
Published: Doubleday Canada (May 25, 2021)
Print length: 384 pages
Major spoilers: Yes
Malibu 1983. Four famous siblings throw an epic party to celebrate the end of the summer. But over the course of one night, each of their lives will be changed forever.
Malibu is buzzing with anticipation for Nina Riva’s annual party. Everyone wants to be in the company of the famous Rivas: Nina, the surfer and model; her brothers, Jay and Hud, one a championship surfer, the other his renowned photographer; and Kit, the adored baby of the family. As if that picture-perfect family isn’t enough, their father is Mick Riva, the legendary singer.
By morning, the Riva mansion will have burned to the ground. And no one will know how the fire started. But before that first spark in the early hours before dawn, the alcohol will flow, the music will play and the loves and secret yearnings that shaped this family across generations will all come bubbling to the surface to make for a night no one will ever forget.
ARC provided by publisher in exchange for an honest review
White nuclear families will literally surf instead of going to therapy for their trauma.
This is one of those rare and extraordinary instances where my rage over a book propelled me through its pages at a speed I am totally unused to. I’m typically a slower reader, especially when losing myself in a world I love. This is because I enjoy soaking up details, really sitting with and unpacking the many layers that I’ve come to expect of long-form fiction. My experience with Malibu Rising was the utter opposite. I flew through the pages in a fit of wrath. If a five star novel is an onion, this was a single sheet of tissue paper.
When I saw the overwhelmingly positive reviews this book has been racking up, I felt a similar confusion as I had last year, after finishing The Invisible Life of Addie Larue and finding that I was pretty alone in my dissatisfaction. I want to chalk this up to the fact that in both scenarios, I had never read a Taylor Jenkins Reid or V.E. Schwab book, respectively, and so had no biases or expectations coming into either book. I had never experienced these authors’ writing styles. I didn’t know what to expect. I had no preconceived opinions to contend with. I was just along for the ride.
Part of me also wonders if maybe these books suffer from the cult classic syndrome so common on Goodreads—the question of whether everyone genuinely enjoys these authors as much as they claim, or if, perhaps, their universal popularity among Goodreads users has begun to affect the dimensions of public opinion/reviews. Sometimes this website does feel like a bit of an echo chamber.
I can’t say for sure. I can only speak for myself when I write that I remain unmoved by author popularity or proclaimed talent. Beloved books have no effect on me. Neither do my Goodreads friends’ opinions (just as I’d hope my own opinions won’t “change” anyone else’s true feelings). I also recognize that I tend to be a tougher critic, probably because I’ve had to spend the last several years performing literary criticism for a degree (which really means figuring out why certain books make me mad, and others don’t). Even despite all of that, though, I know I’m not the wrong audience for these books. Romance and found family are some of my favorite things to read about and when done well, it’s not hard for a book to sway me, even with glaring faults.
Having said all of that, Malibu Rising was something of a disaster from start to finish. I feel like this preface is necessary because I know Reid has garnered a very loyal fanbase. After combing through other reviews, I see that a few who have more extensive experience with her books feel this was a huge departure from fan favorites like Daisy Jones and The Six and Evelyn Hugo. That’s relieving to hear (even if I have no desire to ever pick up a book from this author again). This was very much commercial fiction and I’m wondering if that—commercial/genre trends—hasn’t had some kind of effect on the quality of writing.
In the spirit of Malibu Rising, this review is going to be unnecessarily long-winded (even for me) while also broken up inexplicably. Before launching into the many issues I had with the novel, I want to warn you that I’m going to be laying out a good amount of spoilers. I think so little truly happened in this book that sharing even trivial details feels like it requires this kind of forewarning.
To begin to illustrate the many emotions I felt over the course of this novel, I have handpicked some annotation—of the 146 or so I jotted down—highlights from my kindle. Please enjoy:
- girl i guess?
- that’s enough heterosexuality for today
- why is the dialogue so awkward
- girl what the FUCK
- fathers will be like hope I am not a person to you guys but a concept then disappear in a cloud of mist and wonder why you are deeply and irrevocably traumatized
- where did this even come from
- and no one was surprised
- WHAT A WEASELLY LITTLE LIAR DUDE WHAT A WEASELLY LITTLE FUCKING MANIPULATOR DUDE
- what in the name of filler
- IS IT EVERY BITCH IN THIS BOOK?
- why i hate malibu rising? i will try to be brief (1/435)
- WHAT IS THIS FUCKING FILLER?
- and then the entire audience gasped
- first plot point that doesn’t piss me off (annotated 75% into the novel)
- the men in this book: I HATE GETTING ACCUSED OF SOME SHIT I ACTUALLY DID 😡 WHO THE FUCK TOLD YOU
- i know you’re lying……
- boohoo bitch
- this reminds me of the great gatsby when jay is throwing the party to end all parties and then suddenly goes Everybody Log Out I Wanna Be alone with my hunny Rightnow LIKE BRO YOU LITERALLY INVITED THE ENTIRE TRISTATE AREA TO YOUR PLACE OF RESIDENCE? A LITTLE LATE FOR THAT
- • “eww she fuck the tennis man for tennis balls” – a bitch that’s fucking the tennis man for Large Midcentury Unglazed Terracotta Planters on Stands
Now, let me defend my one star rating. There are—generally speaking—three major components I look for in a novel and build a rating around (though they are often adjusted according to the parameters set by each individual book I read). Plot is not listed among them because, in many cases, fully fleshed out characters are enough to carry a book for me. The three components are as follows:
- Writing—is a novel’s style, syntax, and sense for aesthetics strong? What about appealing, generally and also to me personally? What writing devices are being employed and how well does an author pull them off? How does the prose inform or hinder a plotline? Characters? Is the writing sharp, memorable, complex?
- Characters—do I buy them? Can I close my eyes and see them existing independent of the current narrative? In short, are they convincing or are they caricatures?
- World—is it believable? Does it burst with life and color? Can I pretend this is a nonfiction account, if I really suspend my disbelief?
There are other factors, of course, things more in line with personal enjoyment and personal hangups. But these are my biggest concerns. Some novels might check off one or two boxes. The best check off all three, even if they’re not 10’s across the board. For me, Malibu Rising checks off none.
To begin with: the writing.
Reid’s is not particularly impressive. More often than not, I found the prose in this novel aggravating, prone to drama, awkwardly descriptive in places and absolutely barren in others. Certain stylistic choices, like the third person omniscient perspective, make the novel feel clinical and impersonal—not because this perspective is inherently impersonal, but because Reid’s execution is.
Because the writing style keeps readers at arm’s length, it does not feel like I know these characters. Instead, it feels like I know someone else who does, someone relaying facts about people, with little to no introspection or interesting, informative character interaction. This drove me up the wall because I love third person omniscient—it might be my favorite perspective to both read and write—and I’ve seen it done fantastically, in ways that humanize characters, that make you feel intimately, humiliatingly connected to fictional people. This was not that.
This is made more baffling by the fact that the story being told is so bleak and so heavily reliant on character pain. There are a lot of plot elements at play that would, under normal circumstances, elicit tears, anguish, nostalgia. Here, I felt none—only an undercurrent of anger over the way the story is structured and the characters we’re forced to put up with.
Readers travel backwards and forwards through time, watching the story of the riva children’s parents unfold in the past, then catapulting back into the present as these children grapple with what it means to grow up parentless in Old Hollywood. The structure is designed to create an impression of cause and effect, but because Reid lays it on so thick, vaulting back and forth through time quickly becomes tedious.
Since we’re on the topic of laying it on thick: the melodrama, dialed all the way up, sits at a resting 100% throughout the novel, while any sense of reward falls flat. It’s a lot like listening to a radio station that’s nothing but static at the highest possible volume setting. I’m getting this outpouring of sound, but it’s doing nothing for me, evokes no reaction, is more grating than it is gratifying.
In a prologue that seems to want to emulate Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, readers are informed through foreshadowing that Nina Riva’s big Hollywood party is doomed to end in flames. This prepares readers for a habit the narrative is guilty of repeatedly and unapologetically committing: melodramatic foreshadowing, or preemptive, godlike observations. Sometimes this foreshadowing arrives chapters before a certain realization or reckoning unfolds in real time; sometimes, pages. Others, mere paragraphs. This writing device colors the novel completely, making eventual emotional payoff feel cheap, and unearned. It blunts the impact of conflict, stifles anticipation, and turns a mounting sense of tension into a plateau of exhaustion.
Here is a small example from a secondary character:
“If only Seth would make his way out to the driveway. His perfect match was standing right outside.”Malibu Rising
Why are you telling me this? Who is telling me this? In non-fantastical adult fiction, this omniscient narration style feels ridiculous. Instead of allowing readers to come to certain conclusions on their own—through the characterization and clever writing a book is supposed to be supplying—we are handed conclusions on silver platters. No, actually…we are walked into conclusions like children. And that kind of thing really pisses me off.
The consequence of this choice is that I was no longer willing to be surprised by Reid’s writing. I expected every plot twist. I saw things coming from a mile away. I was biding my time while I waited impatiently for the book to end, and even after finally getting my emotional vindication as things came to a close, I was left ultimately unsatisfied. Why? Because I’d figured out the plot of Malibu Rising by the 10% mark.
This tediousness is never more true than with the novel’s failed romance, which brings us to characters.
(As an aside, it’s funny that I have to make a distinction between the romances written to fail and the romances written to flourish, because the romance writing in this book is a resounding failure across the board. None of the love stories convinced me, even those that ended happily. They rely on clichés every step of the way—something that does not go unacknowledged by the narrative itself—are of little to no substance, and because virtually every character reads more like a cardboard cut-out than a living, breathing human, the romances are also painfully boring.)
Here’s a perfect example of what you can expect Malibu Rising to deliver as far as romance goes:
“‘Hey, man, pass me the chandelier, would you?’ The guy, content to play along, stood on top of the coffee table and grabbed the base of the chandelier, slowly moving it toward Ted. Ted grabbed a handful of the crystals on the bottom. ‘Vickie, let me take you to dinner!’ he said. And then he swung himself across the room, hanging on for dear life. He hit the opposite wall and then let go, crashing onto the sofa with the howl of an injured animal.”Malibu Rising
The two failed romances we follow, one more extensively than the other, are June and Mick Riva, and much later, Nina Riva and her tennis playing husband, Brandon. These relationships are meant to act as both parallels and foils, like repeating histories. They’re designed to create conversations about generational trauma and the habits we inherit (and transcend).
Aside from the fact that Mick is a grown man seducing a seventeen-year-old girl, we know from the beginning that his romance with June is doomed to end in tragedy. More of that pesky foreshadowing: “The story of June and Mick Riva seemed like a tragedy to their oldest child, Nina.”
But it’s also written into the narrative from the start just what kind of man Mick is, so it’s not hard to guess at the happy couple’s eventual fate:
“He was finding his footing coming out of a wave when his gaze fell on the girl standing alone along the shore. He liked her figure. He liked the way she stood there, shy and companionless.”Malibu Rising
As readers come to learn, June is the victim of a serial cheater who up and abandons his children on a whim to fuck what we can only assume are hundreds of women (at times as young as eighteen) over the course of his music career, fathering clandestine children while married, divorcing his wife to remarry one of the many women he’s having a public affair with, returning to briefly atone for his sins to his family, then running off to remarry again. And again. And again. It was exhausting to type that little summary out. Now imagine reading an unreasonably drawn out retelling of that story, when you know every step of the way what kind of man Mick is, and just how eagerly June is going to open her doors for him despite it.
The worst part isn’t the fact that June is cheated on, over and over, without remorse, while she sits at home performing domestic labor for her (ex-)husband. No. The worst offense is that Mick is the crux of June’s entire character.
“His command of her felt like relief—as if, finally, there was someone who would usher her toward the future.”Malibu Rising
While he is permitted a career, a more fleshed out origin story, and desires wholly independent of the women of this world, all June ever aspires to be is the housewife and mother waiting at the window for her cheating husband to return. She has no personality beyond loving Mick. She exists as an extension of him. From introduction until death, she is waiting and hoping Mick will return in order to complete her, to give her what she needs to become a functioning human again. Because, “…to June, it was, always and forever, a romance.”
That, to me, is most egregious.
After writing June a life of misery and pain, the very least I expect is an acknowledgement—a condemnation, really—of who the source of that pain is. But her forgiveness is endless and unwarranted, even in a death Mick is directly responsible for. Even though at times she displays a desire to transcend this writing choice—“I will be more than just this, June thought to herself. I am more than just a woman he left.”—she never does.
“June ended up in the exact place she had hoped Mick Riva would save her from.”Malibu Rising
Beyond the fact that the characters are superficial stand-ins for plot, this storyline could have been cut in half. Pages and pages are wasted trying to tell a tragedy without any emotional momentum. Like a horrifying car accident you cannot tear your eyes from, you drive past these two knowing that disaster is all you’re ever going to get from them.
There’s no relief from that disaster, no character depth to counteract the tired cheating trope—not least because even when they’re at their happiest, June and Mick’s romance is entirely unconvincing. These glimpses of the past are predictable, a contrived point A to point B plotline that readers have seen done a thousand times before—and likely better than in this book, where attempts at subtlety feel more like a slap to the face.
All the time spent trying to paint a picture of generational trauma to explain the gleeful ways in which mick exploits women for personal gain—the ways he sees them only insofar as they can perform for him as sexual objects—could have gone to understanding June and her family outside of a man.
Brandon and Nina’s story is slightly less infuriating, though, again, because she’s written as a parallel of her mother, we’re forced to sit through the same—yes, the same—trope, done again a little differently. The major issue I take with these two really boils down to stylistic choices.
We’re first forced to watch Nina get cheated on and left behind through her own eyes. Unlike June’s version, Nina’s betrayal is abrupt and out of left field, almost as though Reid is incapable of striking a balance between gloriously dragged out and pie-to-the-face surprise. Take this moment, for instance, three paragraphs after Brandon and Nina have exchanged I love you’s, after a clumsy fast-forward through time:
“She heard him walk in the front door and heard his footsteps coming up the stairs. But when brandon walked into their bedroom, he wasn’t smiling. ‘I’m sorry, Nina,’ he said. ‘But I’m leaving.'”Malibu Rising
Am I watching a soap opera? Is there some sort of 20 minute script format being followed? What is this writing? What’s going on with the pacing here? Why is Malibu Rising continuously disrupted by its own inability to achieve equilibrium?
Characterizations only ever exist in these extremes, the hot and cold of what one character believes to be a perfect romance, followed by blisteringly abrupt hatred and betrayal. The transition from romance to catastrophe is near nonexistent. This kind of whiplash will leave you with a crick in your neck.
And then, in the second half of the novel, we watch the Nina/Brandon “love story” get rehashed again through Brandon’s eyes, this time with detail and dimension. Why? Why, why, why? The choice to flit between heads in this way not only creates a startling sense of redundancy, like readers are trapped in a time loop watching the same scenes repeat over and over, it also makes Brandon feel far more humanized than Nina. Her perspective is cut short while his is elongated, resulting in a bizarre sort of asymmetry.
It is choices like these that sabotage the characters in Malibu Rising, which is a bit of a lead-in to its world.
The novel is full-fledged historical fiction in that, even during sections set in the present, readers are living in Old (twentieth century) Hollywood. When I read historical fiction, personally, I look for believable detail as a marker of strong execution. How well-researched is the world we’re inhabiting? Let me tell you…not very.
At times, I forgot that I wasn’t reading contemporary fiction. It’s only offhand details like random celebrity name-drops (occasionally real celebrities, occasionally fictional) that reminds readers that these characters are living in the past. Malibu Rising features a weak facsimile of Old Hollywood, only believable in that the men of this world are unrepentantly shitty and more often white than not. Imagine if The Great Gatsby were a lifetime made-for-tv movie adaptation. That’s the way this book reads.
Reid expends most of her effort trying to build a believable party in the second half of the novel that feels vintage enough to convince you it could be real. How is this achieved? No, not through lush detail and three-dimensional characters. Through slipshod head-jumping.
Which brings me to my next point: filler.
I would argue that over half of this novel is filler. In fact, I have counted at least nineteen filler chapters (or “sections”) in this book—meaning, had they been discarded during the editing process or even condensed into larger combined chapters, the narrative landscape would have remained completely and totally unchanged. In other words, they serve no real purpose. They exist to take up time and space. In a book that is 384 pages long, this choice is particularly needless.
Malibu Rising‘s second half (aptly called “part two”) displays the very worst of this habit. As is often the case with sloppily executed omniscient narration, we head-jump from secondary character to secondary character—though I think calling them “secondary characters” is being generous; they’re more like throwaway characters—spending brief, vignette-like interludes with Hollywood caricatures who have no time to make any kind of lasting impression on readers. These filler sections are typically around 1-3 pages long and are characterized by washed up celebrities who are either a.) extremely horny, b.) looking to find their “true love,” or c.) some combination thereof.
I can see that Reid was attempting to humanize or at least fill up the party Nina throws through these odd perspective shifts. And yet, rarely does the choice to inhabit secondary characters’ heads pay off for writers. Here, it is a spectacular failure. Time that should gone to the Riva siblings and their far more interesting chafing and tenderness is thrown away on…what…? Censored threesomes? Scummy movie stars groping women and getting away with it? In what world does a three page chapter outlining a celebrity’s fictional film successes take precedence over actual plot and main character development?
In Malibu Rising‘s second half, there are at least eighteen characters whose heads we’re flitting to and from. Yes, I counted. At times, these shifts aren’t even marked by new chapters or sections. Sometimes a perspective leap takes place over a single paragraph, in a fleeting interjection from one character before we melt back into whoever the book has decided is the main show for the moment.
What’s more: these secondary characters have absolutely no bearing on the actual plot. They interrupt the rising action, adding to an already choppy narrative landscape, and jumble any remaining sense of cohesion. Too many names and too little personality, all so we can watch them get rounded up and arrested at the very end of the book. Whether the choice to summarize these arrests movie credits-style is meant to make me feel something for characters I quite literally could not care any less about is another question entirely, and one I will now answer: it did not. Neither did it make me believe for a moment that Nina’s party was wild, headline-making, never-been-done-before or will-never-be-done-again.
At that point, I wish Malibu Rising had just committed and really given us the raunchy, raucous party the novel seemed so desperate to sell readers. Like, bro. Just write the threesome you’re teasing.
Of over twenty badly written characters, I liked a total of two. Nina and Kit, one of which I was pleased to accurately predict was—spoiler—gay. The other pissed me off up until around the 80% mark, before her character development really kicked in and I finally breathed a sigh of relief.
Even still, the way the novel fought tooth and nail to try to convince us that Mick is a complex man up until the bitter end made this experience decidedly hair-pulling. If Malibu Rising wanted a morally grey character, the book did a terrible job characterizing him as such. He was unambiguously awful from start to finish. So throwing in lines like, “‘I think he’s an asshole. But I can’t be sure. I don’t actually know him well enough to say,’” from his own permanently traumatized child after we’ve spent 350+ pages watching him abandon his blood to live without either parent or even a stable income is more than a little patronizing. I mean, come on. Can the novel have some backbone?
This book gets one star from me because it didn’t check off any major components from my informal list and because I experienced not one ounce of personal enjoyment over the course of this harrowing journey. I wanted to rage-quit this book like a video game with bad graphics and worse writing more times than I can count. Questions like, what do men have? fueled me for nearly 400 pages, all so I could give an answer I already, deep in my heart of hearts, knew: the audacity.
If I had to sum up my feelings on this book using one of its own quotes, it would have to be…
“Tarine shook her head. […] ‘You people are revolting.’”Malibu Rising