Magazine article The New Yorker

First Novels

Magazine article The New Yorker

First Novels

Article excerpt

Liars and Saints, by Maile Meloy (Scribner; $24). How much calamity can you pack into two hundred and sixty pages? Teen-age pregnancy, murder, and terminal cancer are just some of the things the Santerres, a Catholic family in California, have to deal with. But Meloy manages to avoid melodrama through the precision and restraint of her writing. Ranging over four generations, she identifies and isolates the points at which relationships start to fracture, and shows the tentative attempts, often years later, at repair. She is also a deft sociologist, charting the ways in which the social upheavals of the second half of the twentieth century have gradually reshaped our ideas of family. A central concern here is the nature of belief, and the tightly controlled narrative does not always leave enough room for the larger question to resonate. Still, in an era of bulked-up novels, Meloy's achievement is to have written one that leaves you wishing it were longer.

The Book Against God, by James Wood (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $24). Thomas Bunting, the narrator of this slyly comic novel, is trying and failing to finish a Ph.D in philosophy. He spends most days in his pajamas, avoiding any taskbill-paying, dishwashingthat evokes the "one long liegedom" of adulthood. It is no surprise (except to him) that his marriage is coming undone. Neglecting his moribund dissertation, he labors instead on a secret refutation of religion called the "Book Against God," a work that draws a personal animus from the fact that his own father is an Anglican clergyman. The novel's theological conundrums, allusive as they are, never feel merely academic, for they are refractions of Thomas's personal relationships. When his father's health starts to fail, Thomas must return home and confront the consolationshis father's temperate, generous faith, his parents' happy marriagethat so confound him. …

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