Book review: Taylor Jenkins Reid's Malibu Rising fans the flames of fame

Author Taylor Jenkins Reid has carved a niche for herself in celebrity-adjacent historical fiction with her novels.
Author Taylor Jenkins Reid has carved a niche for herself in celebrity-adjacent historical fiction with her novels.PHOTOS: HUTCHINSON,DEBORAH FEINGOLD

Malibu Rising

By Taylor Jenkins Reid
Fiction/Random House/Paperback/367 pages/$29.43/Available here
3 out of 5

Malibu catches fire. That is how the novel Malibu Rising opens, setting the stage for the story of the famous Riva family and the epic party that burns its mansion to ashes.

It is a fitting introduction, as the novel's finest character is the land itself. Dreamy and atmospheric, it is so evocatively drawn that one can almost hear the waves, feel the sand and taste the ocean.

The setting is extraordinary but the story, despite its glossy Hollywood coating, is a typical family drama.

It revolves around the four children of legendary singer Mick Riva.

Nina, the oldest, is a beautiful but reluctantly famous model. Brothers Jay and Hud are a champion surfer and a photographer respectively. Their sister Kit, the youngest child, lives in all their shadows.

The novel unfolds over the course of one day in 1983 - the day of the Rivas' celebrated annual party.

It is heavily interspersed with flashbacks to their parents' love affair and the childhood and adolescent years in the Riva house, with a thoroughly absent father and a loving but alcoholic mother.

American author Reid, a former casting assistant, has carved a niche for herself in celebrity-adjacent historical fiction with her novels, including the best-selling Daisy Jones And The Six (2019), which is set in the same universe but in the rock 'n' roll scene of the 1970s.

Malibu Rising treads similar ground. The guests at the party include Hollywood archetypes - a misunderstood starlet, a slimy agent - whose characterisations are so flat, you wonder if they are meant to be satirical.

The book is not without its merits.

Nina has a cathartic and compelling arc. Her quiet, simmering rage at the people who feel entitled to her body after a string of famously suggestive photo shoots frays her polite facade.

As the oldest child, she is both a pseudo-parent for her siblings and the one who can recall the most of her family's history and trauma, carrying that on her shoulders.

Nina's exhaustion, grief and anger are so palpable that when her situation finally comes to a head, it is satisfying.

The novel is, at its heart, a touching exploration of what it means to be a parent and, more importantly, what it means to love.

If you like this, read: The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid (Simon & Schuster, 2017, $19.62, available here). An ageing, reclusive Hollywood icon, who has seven marriages to her name, chooses to tell her life's story to an unknown magazine writer.

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