Malibu Rising, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s latest book, was recently released on May 25, 2021. Last week, I was able to borrow a copy from my local library and decided to review this book in a different format than usual– a reading log.
Thus, here I have documented my impressions of this book before reading, my thoughts and hopes halfway through the book, and my final opinions after finishing the book. And while this serves as a review of the book, this blog post contains no spoilers!
June 14, 2021: My impression of this book is that it’s going to read somewhat like a soap opera. Like The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, this book seems to be a dramatic narrative of drugs, sex, and rock and roll in 80’s California.
I hope that the writing is descriptive and immersive, so that as a reader, I really feel placed within the setting. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was a good attempt at this, but I found Reid’s writing of that period to be lacking; thus, I will be observing if Reid has improved on this. I also hope that at least a couple of the characters are LGBTQ+, which I feel may relate to a plot twist or spoilery information. Additionally, I’m wondering how much of Mick Riva we’ll see, who was one of Evelyn’s husbands. It would be really exciting to see more of a crossover between the two books, but perhaps Mick’s presence will merely be an Easter egg–though if Evelyn appears, I’ll definitely be thrilled!
Overall, I anticipate that this will be a juicy “escapist” novel! It’s a little bit on the longer side, but I think it’ll be a fast-paced, gripping story. So far, I haven’t seen many reviews, and while I think it’ll be a fun read, I don’t expect it to be perfect. So far I haven’t read anything else by Taylor Jenkins Reid than The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo because I don’t think I’d like any of them more than Evelyn. Malibu Rising could potentially be my new top Reid novel.
Halfway Through Reading
June 16, 2021: I am currently on page 195, which is the beginning of Part Two and the halfway mark in Malibu Rising. So far, I am enjoying the book, but my prediction is that I will rate it 3.5 stars.
The first half of the book is split between two timelines: a day in late August 1983 leading up to Nina Riva’s annual end-of-summer party, and an abbreviated Riva family saga thus far. Thus, as one timeline ticks by slowly hour by hour, amidst Nina’s preparation, the book also flashes back to 1956 when young Mick Riva first meets June. The decades accelerate as we learn the background story of their romance and their consequent four children, Nina, Jay, Hud, and Kit Riva.
So far, this is very much a story about sibling relationships. The four Rivas have an incredibly strong bond and share a love for Malibu and surfing. Nina, as the eldest, is clearly Taylor Jenkins Reid’s favorite character, and she is very extensively featured in this story. Less vibrant but distinct in their own ways are her younger siblings.
This first half has contained a lot of exposition, and only now at the second part does the party truly start. While it was interesting to learn about the Rivas’ childhoods, I have found myself a little burnt out on the excessive flashbacks. The “present-day” sections have been brief so far, and I’m wondering that now, as the party commences, if the second part will shift to be heavier on the 1983 timeline and more scarce with the backstories, which I would prefer at this point.
The setting starts off strong and feels very “Malibu,” but I’m not necessarily impressed with the writing in terms of immersing the reader in the 1980’s. There are references and allusions to the time; however, I feel as though a book like Silver Sparrow was stronger in its placement of setting.
Regarding the writing overall, it’s fairly commercial but does the job. A few sentences like, “The only bright spot she could see would be when she could ditch to take trips with her friends” have made me cringe with how clunky they read (page 63). But I didn’t go into this novel expecting a literary masterpiece, so I can appreciate this book for what it does: provide characters and orchestrate drama. Which is so fun to read about.
While I’m not necessarily disappointed with this yet, I don’t particularly have high hopes for the second half. I hope that the present-day action will be forefront and that the characters begin confronting their issues rather than passively accepting them. We’ll see!
June 17, 2021: Hmmm…
This is very much a story of Mick Riva and his four children. What I enjoyed about this book was that it takes place in the same universe as The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and there are even a couple character names from that mentioned in this.
Unfortunately though, this book was a letdown.
I’ll give it this: it was an easy and entertaining read, and I read it rather ravenously. Additionally, from reading the acknowledgements, I can tell that this book is very special to Taylor Jenkins Reid and one she clearly spent a couple years forming into its completed version.
However. Personally, there was a lot that did not work for me.
(And let me also say, that it’s perfectly fine if you really loved this book. This is not an attack and I am not claiming that this is the objectively right way to feel about Malibu Rising, so I truly mean no malice.)
So much was explained to the reader. There was little, if any, nuance to the characters and the plot, which I am starting to realize is just a characteristic of Reid’s stories. It was clear to me that Nina was a hard-working, selfless character without the narrator having to emphasize how hard-working and selfless Nina was each chapter. And in the second part, during which the party occurs, the narrator decides to fixate on random party attendees in intermittent chapters, divulging excessive and unnecessary background info about the high-list and low-life background characters. It really did not seem necessary for the narrator to explain how a character like “Vaughn Donovan from Dayton, Ohio” got to be a famous actor. (More on this later.)
Though, while there was so much “explained” about each character, the setting continually fades out of existence and the characters fall into “talking heads syndrome” where they feel separate from their surroundings. Much of the second part occurs at night, yet when they are outside, we are rarely “placed” there as readers, with little to no description of the lighting, the smells, the temperature, the breeze? It seemed like all the characters had perfect vision outside even though it was supposed to be night–was it just very well-lit? I wasn’t informed! And while the narrator lists plenty, such as in the quote, “There were couples and small groups migrating towards the family room, the dining room, the study. There were seven people in the five bathrooms of the house. Two were peeing, three were snorting lines, two were making out” (page 204), that gives me very little as a reader. I really had no idea what “the house” or “the bathrooms” looked like. Apparently it was a big and beautiful house full of art, but what does “big” and “beautiful” look like in the 80’s? So overall, the setting felt really distant and irrelevant from the characters, except from when there were random party hijinks occurring and the setting’s specifics were forced to be mentioned.
For this reason, it did not feel very prominently set in the 80’s. Aside from the clothing, which the narrator went to great lengths to describe for each character, so at least I had that to go off of, there were only infrequent mentions of 80’s brands or celebrities. And since the decor was hardly mentioned, the setting was an empty vessel I had to interpret my own “80’s Malibu beach house” imagination upon, which, since I wasn’t present for that era, I have very little to pull from.
At the end of the night, the characters’ shoes didn’t crunch upon the glass shards in the living room, or if they were barefoot (who knows!) they didn’t have to tiptoe around the jagged ceramic fragments on the kitchen’s orange linoleum tiles. There was no pungent smell of vomit in the hallway, no shaft of sunlight poking through the east window to illuminate the beer bottles littered on the stained shag carpet or splatter of sticky brown liquid dripping down the white wall upon which the defaced Lichtenstein painting once hung. It was all very “ghostlike” how they moved from location to location.
While the first part was overloaded with flashbacks, the second part swaps out the intermittent flashback chapters for vignettes of party attendees. As I said before, these characters felt pointless. I felt like the ending did not culminate in a very satisfying way, which made it feel like a waste to try to remember all these disjointed characters’ names. I understand that Reid probably did this to showcase how “out of hand” the party was and the different motives of the partygoers, but since the Riva siblings felt really removed from the party, I had a hard time caring about these other random people. They felt shallow representations and their personalities began to blur together for me.
And despite all these various threads, the the payoff of all this drama was quite lacking.
Honestly, I liked the Riva siblings as characters but they were not all fully fleshed out despite knowing many facts of their youth. Many of the female characters we were supposed to like were essentially “not like other girls” and most of the guys were either arrogant chauvinists or passive nice guys.
Thankfully though, there was at least a single queer character in this book.
So, overall, I felt like the pacing was really odd, there were too many hollow characters, and the writing lacked key elements of description. However, it was a fun book to read and I did enjoy my time reading it, even though it’s not necessarily perfect to me.
I think if you like Taylor Jenkins Reid’s other books, you’ll probably like this one, too. And if you haven’t read Reid yet and you’re looking to start, I’d say read this first and then read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, because Evelyn is better.
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