A Party Combusting

Ah. Hollywood. One of the most fabled places in the United States, if not the entire world. After rising from relative obscurity following the Great Depression, Hollywood, or Tinseltown has developed into one of the most sought-after places. With its mix of glitz and glamour, it has become one of the most enduring symbols of the American Dream. While it has slowly started losing some of its lusters, many still dream of making it big in Hollywood. Meanwhile, its rich and colorful history, rife with scandal, politics, and power dynamics, tickled the mind of writers. Chief among them is Jackie Collins whose novels, famously the Hollywood series captured these intricacies. They are rowdy and brimming with intrigue, regaling her readers with salacious details of what is happening in the area under the shadows of the famous Hollywood sign. Collins was akin to a showbiz insider with a keen sense for intrigue and a matching talent for spinning them into equally intriguing, if not entertaining literary works.

Straddling the same path is Taylor Jenkins Reid. Born in Maryland, raised in Massachusetts, and currently residing in California, Reid made her literary debut in 2013 with Forever, Interrupted. Since the publication of her first novel, she released at least one novel annually, except for two years, 2018 and 2020. It was with her fifth novel, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, published in 2017, that she shot to fame and became a household name. The story of an Old Hollywood celebrity giving a tell-all about her previous marriages, the book was warmly received by the reading public and literary pundits alike. It was the dawn of a new era for Reid as she followed up her work of historical fiction with successive works playing along similar lines. It would also mark the start of what would be referred to as her “famous women quartet”.

The third book of this literary quartet was Malibu Rising. Published in 2021, Reid’s seventh novel introduced Nina Riva who, in the opening pages of the novel, “woke up without even opening her eyes.” The story took place over the course of a day, on August 27, 1983, a Saturday. It was also a very tedious day for Nina as it was the day of her annual summer party, a party everyone wanted to be part of. However, Nina, who was twenty-five years old when the readers first meet her, woke up with a heavy burden on her heart. She recently separated from her husband, Brandon Randall, after just a year of marriage. Randall, a popular tennis player who won ten grand slam titles, was caught cheating by Nina. Nina, despite her current predicament, did not want to postpone or cancel what has become a tradition.

“She knew it was up to her to say what had to be said. To do what had to be done. When there is only you, you do not get to choose which jobs you want, you do not get to decide you are incapable of anything. There is no room for distaste or weakness. You must do it all. All of the ugliness, the sadness, the things most people can’t stand to even think about, all must live inside of you. You must be capable of everything.”

~ Taylor Jenkins Reid, Malibu Rising

Everyone was looking forward to the Riva end-of-summer party, except perhaps for Nina. She was also not looking forward to the flurry of questions regarding her husband’s absence. The novel took place over the course of the day. As the story moved forward, the readers meet Nina’s siblings who arrived first before the rest of the guests, both invited and who invited themselves in. She had two younger brothers: Jay who works as a professional surfer and Hud who works as a surf photographer. Meanwhile, the youngest of the siblings, Kit was going into her junior year in college. But who or where are their parents? Through a series of flashbacks that alternated with the story’s present, Reid drew their backstory.

Reid then whisked the readers to 1956 in Malibu. Mick Riva was on his way to becoming a famed pop singer. His career has not yet blossomed and he was still a nobody in the music industry when he first met June Costas. Going against her mother’s wishes, “June Costas was a goner.” True enough, her mother’s caveats soon proved true. Mick soon became renowned for his voice and June was always behind him at every step of his journey. However, Mick soon found himself soaking in his new status as a celebrity. His movie-star good looks drew pretty women. But still, June overlooked his infidelities. In one instance, when Mick went on tour, an unknown woman suddenly walked into June’s life, abandoning her son to June. The woman claimed Mick was her son’s father. June did not hesitate in taking responsibility for the abandoned child, Hud.

But not even June’s forgiving nature was enough to transform her husband. He came and went whenever he wanted before he would finally leave his family for good, forsaking his family and hopping from one woman to another, from one marriage to another; he ended up with six marriages. Tragedy would again strike the Riva household, leaving the Riva children not only (virtually) fatherless but also motherless. This left Nina, who was only seventeen-year-old then, to look after her younger siblings. She knew she had to step in lest the social services would intervene and the siblings would end up getting separated from each other. Nina was forced to mature fast and had to think quickly. Pacific Fish, a restaurant owned by June’s family, helped keep them afloat. Nina persevered and when she was given an opportunity to be a supermodel, she took it. Her income as a supermodel ensured her and her sibling’s future.

Malibu Rising captured the portrait of a celebrity in Hollywood. Popularity is valued highly. Talent is a necessity but good looks an even more in-demand commodity. Celebrity life is like living in the fast lane. Reid, with her background in working in the film industry, vividly captured the glitz and glamour of the world of celebrities, from the promising feedback to the loud cheers of fans. But with fame and glory also came a downside. Infidelities and secrets were ubiquitous. Male celebrities fathering children outside of their marriage was not uncommon. Scandals and controversies were everywhere. Worse, the lines between the celebrities’ public and private lives are often blurred, as Nina would soon learn. Since they are viewed as public figures, the public believes celebrities owe them and that they can just interject whenever they want.

“When there is only you, you do not get to choose which jobs you want, you do not get to decide you are incapable of anything. There is no room for distaste or weakness. You must do it all. All of the ugliness, the sadness, the things most people can’t stand to even think about, all must live inside of you. You must be capable of everything.”

~ Taylor Jenkins Reid, Malibu Rising

Beyond the glitz and glamour, we read about how it is to grow up with a prominent figure as a father, one who is also a philanderer and a perpetual absentee. Conversely, the story captured how it is to grow up parentless in Hollywood. The children and the women were the ones who had to suffer from the remiss father. Women, like in the case of June and Nina, had to deal with these infidelities and, to some level, the misogyny, and abuses that permeate the world of celebrities. It was sheer tenacity on Nina’s part that kept her siblings reined in. It was Nina who loomed large in the story. It was Nina who propelled the story. Her tenacious spirit helped keep her family together. In the face of adversity, she steeled herself and buckled up. Elsewhere, the story subtly underscored alcoholic addiction and homosexuality.

The story was juxtaposed to a vivid backdrop. Malibu’s proximity to Hollywood and its idyllic beaches turned it into a premier community for celebrities. Celebrities have flocked to the area and bought their own properties. From a housing community, it was incorporated into a city in 1991. Malibu is also a premier surfing destination and for the Riva siblings, surfing was a way of life. It was a form of escape for them, one of the few things that helped save them. Reid was resplendent in her descriptions of the sport, a sport that she intimately knew. She managed to capture the readers’ imagination with her level-headed descriptions: “Nina was out in the surf, having a hard time finding the kind of long, slow right-handers she was looking for.”

Structure-wise, the story was palpably divided into two halves. The prevailing theme of the first half was a family drama. It captured how Nina’s younger siblings were fiercely loyal to her. Their sibling dynamics were among the highlights of the story. However, the potency of the family drama aspect of the novel was undermined by the novel’s structure. The story of the siblings revolved around overcoming challenges and survivalism but any layer of suspense was rendered useless by the novel’s structure. It lacked the emotional depth that family dramas have become synonymous with. This also made the story predictable, more commercial rather than literary.

The second half of the novel, meanwhile, focused on the party. It was at this juncture that the novel started losing more of its luster. While the first half was brimming with melodrama, fillers and random asides made the second half meander. Random side characters kept appearing. Their presence and backstories, however, did not move the story forward. The second half was disjointed and was all over the place. As the story approached its conclusion, it started losing its plot, hence, any reward at the end fell flat. On the other hand, Malibu is also known for its fire incidents. The date the story commenced was also the date the great Malibu fire of 1983 started, a fact that was highlighted in the book’s prologue. In the end, it was bait, a device used to reel the readers in. In the overall portrait, the event had no significance in the flow of events.

“To do what had to be done. When there is only you, you do not get to choose which jobs you want, you do not get to decide you are incapable of anything. There is no room for distaste or weakness. You must do it all. All of the ugliness, the sadness, the things most people can’t stand to even think about, all must live inside of you. You must be capable of everything.”

~ Taylor Jenkins Reid, Malibu Rising

The story was populated with strong female characters. Both June and Nina were compelling characters who moved the story forward. They were also supported by interesting secondary characters. However, the characters showed very little development. Some characters even exhibited further digressions. It did not help that Reid’s writing style kept the readers at arm’s length. We never get to inhabit their minds. Nina was described as a young woman of spirit but she was still wrapped in a veil of mystery. The readers don’t get to examine her she was observed from a totally different perspective. The lack of reader intimacy with any of the characters was driven mainly by Reid’s inconsistent writing. The pace was also off; there were parts that dragged.

Despite its inconsistencies and flaws, Malibu Rising was an accessible read. It captured the story of a young woman and her tenacious spirit in keeping her family together. It was the story of a dysfunctional family contrasted by fierce loyalty among siblings who have shared a traumatic past. It reverberated with a strong story about overcoming adversities and succeeding in spite of these roadblocks. It was also the story of the glittery but tumultuous world of Hollywood, a world of secrets, infidelities, and different forms of abuse. At its heart, Malibu Rising was about breaking free from the chains that hold us back. To reach that conclusion, one must go through several rough waves, both figuratively and literally.

“A tiny spark in the dry desert wood can grow to a blaze and run wild, burning bright orange and red. It devours the land and exhales thick black smoke that overtakes the sky, dimming the sun for miles, ash falling like snow. Habitats -brush and shrubs and trees – and homes -cabins and mansions and bungalows, ranches and vineyards and farms – go up in smoke and leave behind a scorched earth. But that land is young once again, ready to grow something new. Destruction. And renewal, rising from the ashes. The story of fire.”

~ Taylor Jenkins Reid, Malibu Rising
Rating

54%

Characters (30%) – 17%
Plot (30%) – 
16%
Writing (25%) – 
13%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
8%

Prior to my first book by Reid, I have been encountering Taylor Jenkins Reid whenever I drop by the bookstore. Her works were ubiquitous. However, these encounters barely piqued my interest nor was I intrigued. But after reading countless positive feedbacks on her works from fellow bookworms, I finally decided to give her prose a chance. I obtained a copy of her popular work, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo in December 2021 and a copy of her latest work, Malibu Rising in early 2022. Since I was in the midst of a 2021 Reading Catchup challenge in January and February 2022, I read the latter first. I didn’t realize that in reading Reid’s novel I would be walking down a familiar place I came to know through the (lewd) works of Jackie Collins; I did read her works when I was still in high school. Reid’s novel, however, is not as outrageous as that of the late writer. When I opened the book, I was expecting a coming-of-age story of some sort – I don’t know why. Anyway, the book’s premise reeled me in. In the end, however, I found the story predictable, particularly the second half. Nina Riva was an interesting character but she can be a little passive. Her psychological profile wasn’t as established as I hoped it would be. Nevertheless, this is not keeping me from reading her other works.

Book Specs

Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 365
Genre: Literary, Historical

Synopsis

Malibu: August 1983. It’s the day of Nina Riva’s annual end-of-summer party, and anticipation is at a fever pitch. Everyone wants to be around the famous Rivas: Nina, the talented surfer and supermodel; brothers Jay and Hud, one a championship surfer, the other a renowned photographer; and their adored baby sister, Kit. Together, the siblings are a source of fascination in Malibu and the world over – especially as the offspring of the legendary singer Mick Riva.

The only person not looking forward to the party of the year is Nina herself, who never wanted to be the center of attention, and who has also just been publicly abandoned by her pro tennis player husband. Oh, and maybe Hud – because it is long past time for him to confess something to the brother from whom he’s been inseparable since birth.

Jay, on the other hand, is counting the minutes until nightfall, when the girl he can’t stop thinking about promised she’ll be there.

And Kit has a couple secrets of her own – including a guest she invited without consulting anyone.

By midnight, the party will be completely out of control. By morning, the Riva mansion will have gone up in flames. But before that first spark in the early hours before dawn, the alcohol will flow, the music will play, and the loves and secrets that shaped this family’s generations will all come rising to the surface.

Malibu Rising is a story about one unforgettable night in the life of a family: the night they each have to choose what they will keep from the people who made them… and what they will leave behind.

About the Author

Taylor Jenkins Reid was born on December 20, 1983, in Maryland, United States. When she was twelve years old, Reid and her family moved to Acton, Massachusetts. She completed her degree in media studies at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts.

Post-university, Reid moved to Los Angeles and first worked in film production before pursuing a career in writing. She worked as a casting assistant and also worked at a high school before she signed her first book deal. In 2003, her first novel, Forever, Interrupted. In consecutive years following her first novel, she published After I Do, Maybe in Another Life, and One True Loves. Reid’s fifth novel, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (2017), earned her both critical and commercial acclaim. The titular character at the heart of the novel is an Old Hollywood celebrity who gave a tell-all about her previous marriages. The celebrity world would also be the focal point of her succeeding works, Daisy Jones & The Six (2019), Malibu Rising (2021), and her latest novel, Carrie Soto is Back (2022.

For her works Reid has received a slew of accolades. Daisy Jones & The Six won the Goldsboro Books Glass Bell Award in 2020. It was also a finalist for the Book of the Month’s Book of the Year award in 2021. Meanwhile, Daisy Jones and The Six is currently being adapted into a limited series for Amazon. She met her husband, screenwriter Alex Jenkins Reid while working in the film industry. Reid currently resides in Los Angeles with her husband and their daughter.