All happy families are alike, as Tolstoy says, but that’s not the case in Malibu Rising, which follows a quartet of super-close siblings who would probably describe themselves as a happy family—even if poverty, fame, and necessity have made their version of happiness looks a little more complicated than most.
Nina Riva, a 25-year-old model living in a magnificent cliffside Malibu mansion, wakes up on the morning of her annual end-of-summer party feeling like there’s a decent chance the world will crash down around her. Her brother Jay, a surfing star, tracks down a new crush to invite her to the party—a big step after getting his heart broken by his ex-girlfriend, Ashley. Meanwhile, Nina’s other brother, Hud, an up-and-coming photographer, decides Nina’s party is the perfect opportunity to let family and friends know that he and Ashley—yes, that Ashley—are an item. On the tail end of the siblings is Kit, who decides this is the night she finally kisses a boy—if for no other reason than to quash the suspicion that she might want something quite different out of life than the chick-flick happy ending. And through it all, author Taylor Jenkins Reid reminds us that Nina’s very fancy cliffside home will be in flames by the end of the night.
The entire plot of Malibu Rising takes place within the span of about 24 hours, but those current events are weighed down with years of backstory, which we are given in large chunks that alternate with the usually short bits of present action. Nina Riva doesn’t feel at home in her glorious cliffside mansion, but for so many more reasons than the fact she grew up poor. Jay and Hud have always been joined at the hip, showing just how much is at stake if they fight over a girl. Kit, the youngest, has more reason than most to be the wild card—more brash in some ways than her siblings, but also feeling more out of sorts with the significant reversal of fortunes the family has experienced in the last several years.
The individual wounds and motivations of each of the Riva kids are all underscored by the collective trauma of their absent father, alcoholic mother, and a life below the poverty line. To understand the children, you have to understand the parents, Reid tells us, so we learn all about June and Mick Riva—how Mick sold June a dream he intended to deliver but instead left her raising their kids (and one child from a mistress who decided she couldn’t take single motherhood) while he became rich and famous, and how June’s starry-eyed romanticism left her drunk and drowning in a bathtub that forced Nina to take over the job of parenting the rest of the Riva kids.
If the name Mick Riva sounds familiar to you, you might have read Reid’s previous book, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, in which Mick has a supporting role as husband number three of seven. There are more little nods to Reid’s previous work—I had actually forgotten I put Malibu Rising on my list solely because I heard the Evelyn Hugo author was coming out with another book, and was startled to see the name Cecilia St. James, a major character in Evelyn Hugo, within the first few chapters. These feel more like Easter Eggs than tie-ins: fun for fans but not necessary to understand or appreciate this otherwise stand-alone book. While Evelyn Hugo luxuriates mostly in the 50s and 60s, Malibu Rising only references those decades to understand the “present.” But fame and fortune are still here, only this time bathed in a neon glow.
Reid’s choice to foreshadow the fire is an interesting one that at times felt a little heavy-handed but did provide a throughline of tension even as the ending seemed to be wrapping up otherwise nicely. I suppose this might constitute a minor spoiler, but the foreshadowing feels necessary to support a dramatic turn in the last chapter that otherwise would feel like it came out of the blue. Having that fire foreshadowed made me think there would be far more fireworks (pun intended) in the final confrontations between characters than there ended up being.
Yet having someone throwing torches at someone else and starting the fire that way would make Malibu Rising a different kind of book, one where conflicts are resolved through violence instead of characters growing and learning how to play the hand they’re dealt—or if they want to play it at all. (And, fine, there may be one conflict that erupts in violence, but that’s not what eventually solves the problem. Even there, with flying fists and bones breaking, Reid makes them settle it like adults, more or less.) The kind of book Malibu Rising ends up being is a thoughtful exploration of what constitutes family and how the clash between circumstances and choice determine who a person becomes. And just what it takes to burn a house, or a relationship, down.