So when Mick Riva and June Costas lock eyes on a beach in 1956, you know the heartbreak has already been set in motion. The clues are subtle but insistent: Mick is a touch too charming, a smidgen too slick and — biggest red flag of all — he’s an aspiring musician whose colossal fame is a foregone conclusion.
Don’t bother begging June to run the other way. Even if she could hear you, she wouldn’t listen. The sweet, naive 17-year-old is smitten, plus she sees Mick as an insurance policy against a future spent frying clams at her parents’ struggling seafood shack. When Mick gets down on one knee months after their first date, June doesn’t just say yes, she says, “I think I was put here on this earth to say yes to you.” That can’t be good.
But fans of Reid’s “Daisy Jones and the Six’’ and “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo’’ know that pain is part of the point. There must be an aching heart pitter-pattering at the center of the story, whether it’s a lead singer pining for her married bandmate or an aging starlet lamenting the years she lost with her one true love. In this case there’s a whole chorus of mourners, but there’s also an abundance of joy, love and levity to soften the blows.
It doesn’t take June long to realize Mick’s prediction about their future — “I’ll never leave you Junie. And you’ll never leave me.” — was only half-right. June is cradling 4-month-old Jay with 17-month-old Nina at her heels when a Hollywood ingenue knocks on the door of the Rivas’ Malibu home and hands over a newborn. “I cannot keep him,” she explains with all the emotion of a bank transaction. “Maybe . . . if it was a girl . . . but . . . a boy should be with his father. He should be with Mick.”
June’s pain and rage are combustible, but the moment also reveals this mother’s boundless capacity for love. The baby, Hudson, wails as if he knows he’s been deserted, but when June coos in his ear, he stills. “This boy needed someone to love him,” she understands. “That would be a very easy thing for her to do.” And just like that, he becomes her son. No caveats.
Don’t get too comfortable with those warm fuzzies. Shortly after the arrival of Kit, the fourth Riva offspring, Mick leaves for good, and June self-destructs. Penniless, she goes to work for her parents. Soon, vodka becomes her entire food pyramid, and even tiny Kit knows something is amiss.
“She made less and less sense as the day went on,” the kids realize. “Jay once whispered to Hud, after June told him to ‘go bath and shower,’ that ‘Mom starts acting nuts after dinner.’ ”
The only thing more devastating than the abrupt disappearance of one parent is watching another dematerialize in slow-motion. The situation is terrible, but also wonderful in one specific way: The four siblings form an unsinkable bond built not only on their communal suffering but their shared love of surfing. Their board is their bellhop, whisking away their emotional baggage, if only for the duration of each swell. “What glory it was to feel the ocean move with you,” Nina marvels the first time she catches a wave, “to ride the water.”
We know things will work out to some extent, because chapters from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s alternate with episodes that unfold on Aug. 27, 1983, when Nina, now a famous model, will throw a massive soiree at her Malibu mansion on a cliff above the coast.
Part of the fun of Reid’s recent novels is the way she reveals the machinery of celebrity life. The hot new star is also a lech; the ascendant screenwriter has the self-confidence of a high-schooler getting stuffed into a locker. Nina’s best friend, Tarine Montefiore, is an entertainingly snobby model with an impossible-to-place accent. “I need your best red wine,” she tells Nina at the big bash. “Not the low-shelf stuff you give to everyone. The stuff you reserve for people like me, please.” Of course, being a celebrity is also misery. People feel entitled to Nina’s time and attention, and she’s suffered so many lewd remarks and wandering hands that, “she’d perfected the art of standing close without touching” when fans lean in for a photo.
Nina turns out to be the star of the novel. She’s not always in the frame, but she makes the greatest impact. In comparison, Kit — always lamenting living in her sister’s shadow as a “chick surfer who wasn’t a babe” — is eclipsed by Nina’s presence. Even when the younger sister has an earth-shifting late-novel realization, it feels so smoothly negotiated, it might as well be a check mark on a to-do list.
Then again, by that point, the speed of the storytelling has necessarily accelerated. If Part I is designed to parcel out bits of backstory to make the Riva children endearing survivors, Part II is an account of “one of the most notorious parties in Los Angeles history.” Reid’s sense of pacing is sublime as she introduces and dispenses with a revolving door of characters to approximate the chaos of a rager where sloshed A-listers couple up in the closets and waiters pass trays of cocaine.
It’s not a spoiler to say that this will all end in a blaze. No high — whether it be drug-fueled or geographic, at a party on a cliff above Point Dume — can last forever. Down below, the tide will roll in, then roll out, and Malibu will keep catching fire.
Stephanie Merry is editor of Book World.
By Taylor Jenkins Reid
Ballantine. 384 pp. $28