By Shaila Kumaradas
Slip off your shoes and dip your toes in the water. Can you feel the faint ocean breeze and the droplets splashing against your cheeks as the sound of four surfboards hitting the water echoes in the distance? If you can, you’ve found the home of the Riva siblings. I hope you enjoy your stay.
It is easy to explain the appeal of Malibu Rising. It has a beachy, dreamlike cover perfectly suited to those late summer nights when you crave a novel somewhere between the lines of “Young Adult” and “Adult” fiction. The stamp across the front, “Bestselling Author of Daisy Jones and the Six” carries the promise of entrancing characters and language that reshapes your thoughts. Or even simply the name, Taylor Jenkins Reid, is one that is swiftly becoming a staple on the shelves of contemporary fiction and thus a necessity for any book lover to have read. Not to mention the praise and the glowing reviews surrounding the writer and the title.
But what really stuck out to me above all else was the blurb and the critics’ promise of a character-driven story: its web of complex parental relationships, and of lost family. Did it live up to this promise? Yes, for the most part. Was I disappointed by its execution? Perhaps.
Reid, as she displays in Daisy Jones and the Six, knows how to give characters a strong voice – to the extent that at some point, without realising it, you’ve stopped seeing them as characters. Rather, they are people that you meet on a page, that just happen to be crafted by ink.
On the surface, Malibu Rising delivers what it promises. The core of the story is the Riva family, and each individual plotline adds a small puzzle piece to the overall enigma of their lives. Mick and June Riva, the young, struggling parents of the four protagonists, are presented in flashbacks over the course of many years, ranging from 1956 to 1981. We are also offered glimpses straying far further back than this timeframe, with snippets of June and Mick’s younger years, including their childhood dreams.
As teenagers, Mick and June play out a budding love story that is not particularly convincing (nor is it meant to be). Reid shows us a prequel to their doomed love and the slow, aching deterioration that follows. We are led to hope for an amicable separation before their lives implode, but that is not how these stories go, especially not in the worlds that Reid creates. Mick, the increasingly famous rockstar (and father when he is reminded of it), has one affair after the next and is barely able to keep track of them himself. He and June divorce twice, the second separation permanent and the cause of June’s downward spiral. In his absence, June’s only moments of intimacy are with the bottles she downs; she never gives a thought to any man except her divorced husband.
In the present day, the perspective shifts between each of their four children. Nina: tall, responsible, and blessed with a supermodel-like appearance, is the anchor holding her family and the narrative afloat. Jay is a professional surfer: lanky and handsome. Hud is short, stocky, and both the inverse of and a mirror to his brother Jay. And Kit is the youngest, outspoken but struggling in Nina’s shadow. Reid provides a strong setup, creating characters who are not easily forgotten. But for a character-driven plot, only Nina seems to truly carry the story.
Nina, the eldest Riva child who eventually acts inloco parentis for her three siblings, helps others before helping herself, which has led to her never “hav[ing] lived a single day for [her]self” (232), as her best friend Tarine tells her. Nina’s more emotionally charged scenes make up for the superficial moments in which various rock stars’ and celebrities’ lives are briefly explored, moments which rather than giving a meaningful insight into their lives often seem quite vacuous. The party described in the second half of the novel feels somewhat disconnected from the significance of the Riva family dynamic. The most impactful scenes in the novel revolve around Nina’s joys and suffering. We feel a sense of dread creeping in through the windowpanes as young Nina stops resisting her father’s efforts to reconcile with her after his first affair:
She smiled just the tiniest bit in her lavender dress, so he lifted her up into his arms and ran with her through the parking lot.
“Nina, my Nina! Cuter than a ballerina!” he sang to her, and when he put her down, she was laughing. (109)
She forgives him in her youth, not yet having learned that he hasn’t changed and never will. And it is these moments of hope, right before they are lost, that strike a chord in the reader. Beside this, the confrontation between the brothers Jay and Hud seems somewhat superficial; their fight over Hud’s involvement with Jay’s ex-girlfriend doesn’t carry the same weight as Nina’s struggles. Jay and Hud possess little personality besides their fiery confrontation, which predictably ends in them reconciling as they are bonded in brotherhood.
Kit’s character is allowed slightly more depth, as the narrative conveys her rethinking her sexuality and moving out of her comfort zone. The novel hints at her interests and passions such as surfing, yet these aren’t explored in depth beyond a few lines. Other avenues of Kit’s character development are left unfortunately unexplored. She leaves no lasting impression when compared to Nina, inadvertently leading the reader to the exact conclusion that Kit seeks to break away from: Kit lives in Nina’s shadow, both throughout the book and in the reader’s mind.
The part of the story that moved (and frustrated) me the most were the flashback scenes to Mick and June Riva’s tumultuous beginnings and marriage, and the start of their family. The instant infatuation, while being an overly familiar literary trope, works in the sense that we see why Mick and June sought each other out. They were two young adults breaking free from their past lives and primed to fall in love.
Mick and June are given abundant chapters in which their relationship flourishes and then swiftly disintegrates. Their relationship is the tragedy and defining factor of June’s life. She is gentle and caring, a kind mother to her children until she eventually falls victim to alcoholism. She is a sympathetic character in her simple wish for a loving husband. But this wish that she so dearly clings to is the only one which seems to matter to her. She has no aspirations outside of her relationship with Mick and it is disheartening to see her yearning for his return, particularly after their second divorce, after his child support ends and he is nowhere to be found.
In her portrayal of June, Reid paints the tragedy of alcoholism and its crippling effects on a family. At first, June is a functional alcoholic, one who “still kept her charm and wits about her [and] got the kids to school on time” (132). But soon, her addiction becomes apparent to all of her children as she becomes increasingly unstable. The problem that arises here does not lie in the depiction of June’s alcoholism; rather, it lies in its cause. June’s life revolves around her husband. Her alcoholism is a direct result of the pain Mick has caused her. And ultimately, she dies in the bathtub of the home he bought her. Her children keep swimming, keep surfing, but she drowns – never truly recovering from her husband’s betrayal.
But a woman is more than her husband, and I wonder, why couldn’t June have been more than Mick? His first affair was shocking to the Riva family, the greatest betrayal of all. But what about the second, the third, or the tenth betrayal? His disloyalty wasn’t a phase. If anything, in the case of Mick Riva, disloyalty is his most prominent character trait. He is, in many ways, a cardboard cut-out of the charming, adulterous, neglectful husband. For the reader, his act gets old quite quickly. Yet it continues for the remainder of the novel.
“Family histories repeat” (191) Reid reminds us, as Mick mirrors his own father’s actions. He knows that he will never change, even for his children – especially not for his children. He is sorry, but in the end, he simply does not care enough. The Riva children, in unexpected ways, echo their parents’ actions. Hud accidentally impregnates his secret girlfriend, Ashley, just like Mick did to Hud’s biological mother, Carol. Nina reconciles with her husband Brandon after he has left her for another woman, just as June once did. Hud and Nina each break the pattern of their parents, however, with Hud vowing to always stand by his child and Nina breaking things off with Brandon for good. You cannot help but root for the Riva children, as they lose their way and then find their footing once again.
The recycling of the stories throughout the Riva generations both strengthens the narrative by showing the cyclical nature of family history and hinders it from offering something new in the latter part of the story. But what sustains the novel throughout is the way Reid builds the characters’ world. Reid knows how to sculpt a scene, as she has proven to readers in her previous novels. Malibu Rising is no different. Malibu Rising is a strikingly vivid narrative, destined to one day capture the screen of cinema. Reid’s world unfolds in your mind like a pop-up book or a Hollywood scene, so visual that I could describe to you the sight of the Riva cottage tucked away by the water, or the industrial lines of Nina and Brandon’s house which never crossed the threshold into a home. The world she creates sits freshly in the reader’s mind; the descriptions are poignant without ever being overdone. Pieces of Malibu from all generations are woven through the text: “Back then, Malibu was a rural fishing town with only one traffic signal. It was quiet, crawling inland by way of narrow winding roads through the mountains. But the town was coming into its adolescence…” (31).
The setting greatly shapes the novel and the characterisation of each Riva. For Jay, Hud and Kit, home lies in the cottage by the water. It resides in their shared love of surfing and their connection to the ever-present ocean, one of the most powerful bonds depicted in Malibu Rising. For Nina, the idea of home is much more ambiguous. Her world is stretched between the cottage, which her father bought, her mother’s restaurant, Riva’s Seafood, and the house Brandon bought her. But her heart takes her elsewhere, to the beaches of Portugal. The unfamiliarity of this new place is a welcome highlight of the narrative – I only wish there could have been more startling turns away from the cycle of events repeated and recycled across each generation of Rivas.
Shaila Kumaradas is currently doing the MA Literature Today at Utrecht University. She is currently an intern at Amsterdam-based publisher Versal and is writing her thesis about marginalisation in Malaysia during WWII. Shaila is looking forward to finishing her master’s degree in January and pursuing a career in writing and editing.
- Reid, Taylor Jenkins. Malibu Rising. Penguin Random House, 2021.