On the night of their famous end of summer party the four Riva children would seem to the outside world to have it all. Nina, the oldest, is a famous model living in a cliffside mansion bought by her tennis-star husband. Jay Riva is a champion surfer frequently on magazine covers in photos taken by his half-brother Hudson, while youngest child Kit is still in college and a promising surfer in her own right. But as they spend the day of August 27, 1983 preparing for their annual shindig numerous secrets and personal crises are threatening to rise to the forefront of their lives. Nina is trying to put on a brave face in public by throwing the party despite her husband leaving her for another tennis champion. Jay is hiding a recent diagnosis that will spell the end of his surfing career. Hudson has to figure out how to tell Jay and the others that he has fallen in love with Jay’s ex-girlfriend. And Kit is wondering how she’s made it to 20 years old without ever kissing a guy and worried that she knows the answer.
Family trauma plays a huge part in the plot, as the siblings are collectively dealing with the fact that their father, famous singer Mick Riva (who you may recognize as Evelyn Hugo’s husband number 3) has been absent almost their entire lives. Their mother struggled to raise them all on her own, and Nina had to step up at an early age and take care of her siblings. All in all, it’s a weird atmosphere for a party, not that any of the models, actors, directors, athletes, musicians, and various hangers-on who made the guest list notice or care.
This is the third novel of Reid’s that I’ve read and I’ve started to notice a pattern. Reid does incredibly well with people, but has a harder time with details. In The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Daisy Jones and the Six, she managed to make her characters feel real, seemingly effortlessly. The same goes for Malibu Rising. Nina Riva and her siblings come to life and I have no doubt that most readers will find themselves caring a lot about what happens to them. However, I frequently find that her attempts to build out the worlds of her stories often ring false. In Hugo that manifested in both a Hollywood and a magazine industry that didn’t feel real. Daisy Jones had the same problem with the music industry. In Malibu, the main problems are of scale and time. Reid has an obsession with extremes. It’s not enough for Mick Riva to be a well-known singer, he has to be basically Frank Sinatra. Nina’s not just a model, she’s the model, and her husband is the best tennis player in the world. It all adds up. Reid’s timeline is also oddly compressed for reasons that are unclear to me. It’s disorienting whenever the reader is reminded that Nina is only 25 years old, especially considering Reid has her being “discovered” at 21. Is it possible for someone to get discovered, meet a tennis champion, get married, get separated, and establish herself enough that her annual party is the event of the year? I guess technically it is, but it requires a pretty hefty suspension of disbelief.
That being said, there are reasons why I keep coming back to Reid’s books. For one thing her books are compulsively readable and hard to put down. I’ve breezed through all three of the ones I’ve read without feeling like they were lightweight. That’s because of Reid’s gift for memorable characters that provoke real emotions. Still, I do wish she’d tighten up the details.