Maile Meloy's literary voice is as distinctive as her name.
The young Californian's prose is so spare as to be downright skeletal at times, with the speedy grace of a champion sprinter headed for the finish line. This novel moves. She manages, somehow, to balance edgy hipness and poignant wisdom. Best of all, although Meloy writes in the genre sometimes called "domestic realism" -- a category broad and vague enough to include E.M. Forster, Jane Austen and Anne Tyler -- she sounds like no one except herself.
And that's cause for rejoicing. Meloy's work is a find for fiction readers who search for that elusive combination: the novel of literary merit that moves so fast you can't put it down.
In "A Family Daughter," Meloy returns to the Santerre family, the subject of her first novel, "Liars and Saints," which was greeted with critical acclaim and short-listed for last year's Orange Prize.
This time, though, she concentrates on Abby, a college-age woman who finds herself writing a novel about her sometimes-dysfunc-tional Catholic family and its thick web of family secrets.
Abby's novel, in a nicely postmodern twist, sounds a lot like Meloy's "Liars and Saints," and is full of its own dark secrets and taboos, not the least of which is Abby's sexual relationship with her young, ne'er-do-well uncle.
The secrets start to bubble to the surface as her family reads the novel. The reactions -- hurt, confusion, understanding -- reveal the characters to each other, to the reader and to themselves. Abby's aunt Margot, always the perfect daughter, wife and mother, reacts by returning to a long-lost relationship and beginning an extramarital affair that had its origins 15 years earlier.
All of this makes "A Family Daughter" not exactly a sequel, but something like a companion piece to "Liars and Saints."
Together, the two novels are like a boxed set of prisms. Which way do you want to look at this family? Through which lens and in what light? Through whose eyes and from which vantage point?
The answers bring other questions: Where does truth end and fiction begin? What's the difference, exactly, between memory and what might have been?
Any way you look at it, the results are often dazzling and endlessly intriguing. Meloy moves skillfully from one family member's circumstances to the next's, but Abby is the heart and soul of this novel. Her central paradox -- that she is a person of integrity who doesn't always act like one -- draws us in. Meloy makes us understand Abby's contradictions: This "family daughter" is so honest in her writing that she's willing to hurt those she loves most. And she is strong and morally grounded, but not quite enough to keep her away from her beloved uncle's embraces.
Like all the best fiction, "A Family Daughter" tells us something about ourselves, and something about the world. The Santerres are certainly less than a model family, scarred as they are by adultery, deception and incest. But those flaws are also what makes them universal, and difficult to forget.
Margaret Sullivan is the editor of The News.
>A Family Daughter
By Maile Meloy
Scribner, 325 pages, $24