The was no question of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s most recent novel Malibu Rising being anything less than excellent; it lived up to expectations.
I’ve been a big fan of Taylor Jenkins Reid for a while. I fell in love with The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and was even more impressed by Daisy Jones and the Six. I hadn’t realized that those two novels, along with the new Malibu Rising, create a trilogy of sorts. They’re only loosely connected—one character appears in all three, and there are a few references to the other stories that are easy to miss if you’re not looking for them—but they have a lot of thematic similarities. They’re all about famous, beautiful women in or around the entertainment industry whose lives are shaped by the Hollywood, sex, infidelity, marriage, drugs, toxic masculinity, fame, and more; however they all approach these topics from different directions.
Evelyn reflects back on a lifetime of regret and love. It deals with racism, biphobia/homophobia, and objectification. Its titular heroine is a force of nature, but she’s also a beautiful, bisexual woman of color (mostly white-passing) in Hollywood in the 60s which means that her life is full of men who try to control her and do to varying degrees.
Daisy’s heroine is also famous in her own right. She is a talented songwriter and has an almost otherworldly voice. She makes bad choices and nearly throws her gifts away at every turn. Her band is plagued by in-fighting, drug use, and her ongoing flirtation/affair with her married bandmate; despite their incredible talent and lightning-in-a-bottle success, the group has no longevity because they seem determined to destroy themselves form the inside.
Malibu Rising is also about women in and around the industry, but it takes a step back from the spotlight. Evelyn and Daisy are headliners, while Nina—while well known and easily recognizable—is not. She is a model and married to a tennis superstar, but she also makes regular appearances at the seafood restaurant her grandparents owned and her dream is to live anonymously on the ocean where she can surf in peace. She actually has an uneasy position between fame and anonymity. She is very visible, but it is just her body. She is clothed and posed in ways she would not choose, and we’re specifically told multiple times that her most popular pictures make her uncomfortable (in one, her surfboard has been cropped out; in another, her swimsuit has gone nearly transparent, distracting from the fact that her poor form caused a wipeout mere moments later). Nina’s body is famous, but Nina herself—Nina the person—is nothing. Evelyn and Daisy are famous for their beauty and their talent; Nina is known only for her beauty, and if she were to retire, she’d be replaced quickly without a second thought.
It is fitting that Malibu Rising is not named for Nina, or for her siblings. It’s their story, of course, but it’s also their father’s story. It’s also the story of the insanely out-of-control party Nina throws. It’s about growing into adulthood with the scars of a traumatic childhood. It’s about Malibu. It’s a generic story told through the specific lens of these four young adults.
In the first chapter, we’re told the story will end with a fire that burns the Riva mansion to the ground, and then we’re presented with a plethora of characters and conflicts that may have caused the flames, but while the fire is literal it’s also metaphorical, because there’s a symbolic burning down of one way of life to make way for another. The fire is a destruction, but it is also a cleansing.
Malibu Rising is all about contradictions. Nina, the sex-symbol who just wants to be alone and unobserved. Jay, the champion surfer whose heart literally won’t let him surf. Hud, the nice guy who’s been sneaking behind his brother’s back. Kit, the woman whose family will never see her as anything but a child. A family who has everything except what they need, who have the adoration of many but the love of only a few. We get to know all four Riva children, both as who they are and who they might be without the pressures of a semi-public life. But the Rivas are far from the only characters. There are dozens of them, some who only pop in briefly to add to the obscene excesses at the party or who fill out the flashback scenes that chronicle the Rivas’ parents’ courtship and marriage. These characters provide a contrast to our protagonists. We can understand Nina more by comparing her to her peers, to her husband and his lover, than by merely viewing her in a vacuum.
Reid does such a great job. She’s such a decisive, composed writer. Malibu Rising does a lot with its 350-odd pages. It’s part mystery. It’s part love story. It’s part coming of age. It’s part family drama. It starts out as a fun, low-stakes romp: a supermodel is throwing a fancy party for other rich, famous, beautiful people. By the end, it has become something much more intimate, but emotionally bigger. I confess that when I started Malibu Rising I was concerned that it was more flash than substance in comparison to Evelyn Hugo and Daisy Jones, but it more than made up for that in the latter half. Once the party starts, and particularly once it winds down, it’s one emotional gut-punch after another.
It’s brilliant. Taylor Jenkins Reid has always been good, but she has improved so exponentially since Maybe in Another Life that she may as well be an entirely different writer. Malibu Rising is not exactly what I expected—it tells the story of the family left behind by an irresponsible superstar instead of following in the footsteps of the previous two books by telling the story of said irresponsible superstar, and its focus on family is likewise a change after the stories of two women who were essentially alone—but it is exceptionally well-written and is just as enjoyable and emotionally satisfying as Reid’s other recent work.