Book review and synopsis for Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid, a beachy family drama about four famous siblings and an epic party in Malibu.
In Malibu Rising, four famous siblings throw an epic party each year. However, this time around, this one will end in a fire that will set Malibu aflame.
Nina Riva is swimsuit model, whose husband has recently left her. Jay Riva is a professional surfer. Hud Riva is a photographer, and Kit Riva is a junior in college. And the siblings' father is legendary musician Mick Riva.
In this family drama detailing the history of the Riva family and a 24-hour period that will change them all, Taylor Jenkin Reid brings us a story about family, love, heartbreak, surfing and one unforgettable party.
The one-paragraph version of this: Malibu Rising is about four siblings whose father (Mick) leaves them to become a music legend. Their mother accidentally drowns, leaving the eldest (Nina) to raise the rest of them. They struggle along until Nina becomes a swimsuit model, and Nina start throwing an annual party at her house that attracts a lot of famous people. In 1983, the party gets out of control. Mick shows up to try to reconcile with his kids, but they reject his false promises and Nina finally is able to tell him off. Before he leaves, Mick tosses a cigarette that starts a fire that ends up burning down the house. But by then, Nina is already on a plane to live out her dream of living an unassuming life of surfing and eating fresh fish in Madeira, Portugal.
In Part I, the book opens in 1983 and introduces the four Riva siblings. Nina, 25, is a swimsuit model. Jay, 23, is a professional surfer. Hud, also 23, is a photographer. And Kit, 20, is a college junior. It's the day of the Rivas annual party at Nina's house, a major social event that attracts all types of celebrities.
As story then jumps back and forth in time to tell the history of the Riva family. The siblings' parents are June and Mick Riva. June's parents own a restaurant on the Malibu coast. Mick had a difficult childhood and dreams of stardom. June and Mick fall in love and get married, but once Mick's career starts to take off, he habitually cheats on June. One day, a woman shows up and drops off a baby, saying Mick is the father. June and Mick agree to raise the baby, Hud, as their own.
When the kids are young, Mick leaves permanently, leaving June to raise them alone. Mick also neglects to pay child support or alimony, and June doesn't want to call him begging for his help. Instead, they struggle along, with June taking over her parents' restaurant. June becomes an alcoholic, eventually drunkenly drowning herself in the bath.
By then, Nina is 17. Nina is determined to keep her siblings out of foster care, so she drops out of school to run the restaurant. When she turns 18, she files for legal guardianship. They barely get by until 1798, when Nina is 20, and she's spotted by a magazine editor. Soon, she starts modeling swimsuits and surfing, with one photo in particular becoming a very popular pin-up that makes her famous. Around this time, the Rivas start throwing an annual party at Nina's house. Nina also later meets Brandon, a tennis pro, and they get married.
By 1983, Nina has continued to model while running the restaurant on the side. Brandon has recently left Nina for another woman, reminding her of her father's behavior.
Meanwhile, Hud has been secretly seeing Ashley for six months, who was Jay's girlfriend until they broke up last month. Jay has met someone new, Lara, but he has also found out that he has a heart condition which means his surfing career is over. No one else knows about it. And Kit has her own dreams of being a pro surfer, but is struggling with her own insecurities about her appearance.
Part II opens at 7:00 PM with the first guests for the Riva annual party arriving, including a lot of famous people. The party quickly gets out of hand with trays with lines of cocaine being passed around, people having sex and various people drunkenly vandalizing the house.
At the party, Brandon shows up, saying he made a mistake leaving Nina for Carrie Soto, the most famous female tennis player. Nina hesitantly takes him back. However, later Carrie shows up to scream at Brandon for treating her poorly. It makes Nina realizes she should be more willing to demand more for others, since she has spent her whole life putting other people first. Nina tells Brandon to leave. (Brandon drunkenly crashing his car and eventually goes back to Carrie.)
Meanwhile, Jay tells Lara he loves her, but Lara not on the same page as him and they break up. At the same time, Jay finds risqué photos of Hud and Ashley and realizes they are together. He angrily confronts Hud (who has just learned that Ashley is pregnant), and they get into a fight.
Then, partway through the night, a girl named Casey shows up at the party, saying that she thinks Mick Riva is her father. Elsewhere, Kit is making out with a nice guy she likes, Ricky, when she realizes she's a lesbian.
At 2:00 AM, Mick shows up to the party, having been sent an invite from Kit. He hasn't seen any of his kids since he walked out on them when they were young. And while there are many famous people there, Mick is a music legend. Mick talks to his kids, and he asks to be a family again, saying he's capable of being a father now. However, Nina finally finds it within herself to tell him off. The other siblings agree, saying it's too late.
After he leaves, Kit thinks about what Nina said about the decisions she's made for the sake of the family, and she suggests that Nina do something for herself. Nina had mentioned wanting an unassuming life in Madeira, Portugal, surfing and eating fish. Kit encourages Nina to buy a one-way ticket and just disappear, using the commotion of the party for cover.
As the morning comes, Nina's best friend, Tarine, struggles to get the party under control as the Rivas deal with their personal issues. Finally, she calls the police for help, and they end up making a slew of arrests.
Jay and Hud end up making peace with each other, and Jay confides in him about his heart condition. Hud soon proposes to Ashley, and he is determined to be a good father to his child, unlike his own father. Meanwhile, Kit intends to pursue her own surfing career.
At 7:00 AM, just before Mick leaves, he tosses a cigarette but and unknowingly starts a fire. Soon, it burns the house down. By the time fire is finally under control, Nina Riva is already on her flight. The book ends by saying that the fire "had brought destruction. It would also bring renewal, rising from the ashes. The story of fire."
By Jenn Marie on Jun 4th, 2021 (Last Updated Jan 19th, 2022)
Malibu Rising is Taylor Jenkins Reid’s newest novel, released a few days ago on June 1st.
Continuing Reid’s trend of writing about famous, gorgeous people, Malibu Rising is about a set of famous, attractive siblings that throw the trendiest party of the year … where someone starts the fire that culminates in the Malibu fire of 1983.
I was a little hesitant to see Reid writing yet another book that is fixated on fame and beauty. Especially coming out of the pandemic, my appetite for celebrity worship, fame-obsession and trendy parties is pretty non-existent.
However, I liked Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo enough that I wanted to give this a shot. It also turns out that most of the story in Malibu Rising is more about a family struggling along, rather than being fame-obsessed, anyway.
I was also intrigued by the whole Malibu fire angle of her story, though it (somewhat disappointingly) actually ends up being a much more minor part of the story than the prologue would suggest. I’ll give her props for a clever hook, though it felt a little like a bait-and-switch. Instead, the book is divided into two distinct halves, with the first half focused on the family history, stretching across many tumultuous years as they struggle along, and the second part takes place at the party.
Mick Riva is the patriarch of the Riva siblings in Malibu Rising, but the character appeared originally as the third husband of Evelyn Hugo. He later hosts a party that Daisy Jones attends. Celia St. James, a main character in Evelyn Hugo, also gets a quick mention in Malibu Rising. So does one of the records labels, Runner Records, from Reid’s novel Daisy Jones & the Six, reminding us that all these novels exist tangentially in the same universe.
Malibu Rising is as beachy of a read as the cover art promises, since the characters all love to surf and run a restaurant near the coast. It’s easy to imagine the salt in the air, your hair tangled in the wind, and the gritty sand under your feet as you flip through this fast-paced story of family drama, love, heartbreak and Malibu set aflame.
Reid sets her characters upon storylines that are enticingly dramatic and mostly believable (with some caveats, see the Spoiler-ish Thoughts, at the end). In Malibu Rising, the highs are high and the lows are low, but she runs through all of it so quickly that there’s not much time to dwell.
Reid does a great job of infusing her characters and their life stories with just enough quirks and wrinkles to make them feel real, like reading about people from a magazine instead of something fictional. She then takes those characters and mixes them together in engrossing storylines that are easy to get lost in, set in a backdrop of sandy, sun-kissed beaches that are pleasant to imagine.
Altogether, Malibu Rising makes for a fitting beach read.
I did find this story pretty entertaining, but to be honest I’ve read so many great and incisive family dramas lately, that this one pales a little in comparison. The ups and downs of the family are what make it a page-turner, but I found it sort of lacking in emotional depth. (See The Four Winds or The Push for some solid family dramas.)
I also wasn’t a huge fan of the structure of the book. There are two clear parts of the book (Part I is family history, Part II is the party), and I would have preferred the two sections to be better integrated. It was the fire storyline that drew me in — with the prologue ominously describing a fire that will have engulfed the coast by 7:00 A.M. on the morning following the party — but then there’s half a book full of family history before there’s even a hint of a fire.
Moreover, for the family drama aspect of it, the structure of the book takes away from the suspense in the story. Reid paints it as a survivor-type story, one about them overcoming adversity. The problem is, we know it’s going to work out fine for all of them since we meet them in the first chapter in present day (well, in 1983 when the story is set) and they’re all doing great.
Then, when the party actually takes place, there’s a lot of random asides between miscellaneous side-characters. I didn’t love this aspect of the story, especially because it’s in the later half of the book when it seems like the main narrative should be fully underway (as opposed to introducing a bunch of random characters). In general, in the second half, the cadence of the novel ends up feeling a little disjointed.
The book is still an entertaining page-turner either way, but I’m curious to know if anyone had similar thoughts. (Or, of course, feel free to disagree!)
Read it or Skip it?
Overall, Malibu Rising makes for an entertaining beachy read. Fast-paced and filled with drama, the story will easily keep your attention. Some parts felt a little extraneous to me, but overall it’s a perfectly suitable book for those sunny beach days with a Tequila Sunrise in hand.
It doesn’t quite have the substance or depth that I typically look for in a good book club read, but I would absolutely recommend it as a quick summer page-turner if you’re looking for those fun, beachy summer vibes.
P.S. If you like family dramas mixed in with survivor-type stories, the Four Winds is great book to check out and one that I liked quite a bit more than this one.
P.P.S. On a separate note, did any else notice how there seems to be a misprint in the book (in the hardback first edition + ebook versions) on pages 175-178? That section clearly takes place in 1983, but it falls within the flashback/1978 section.
So, I thought the plot was largely believable (albeit it’s intentionally a bit extra). The one thing that didn’t ring true to me was the idea that June would choose to struggle and live a life she’d specifically not wanted (working at the restaurant) when she could just make one phone call and get child support and alimony from Mick straightened out.
I get being proud or being mad at him or wanting to prove something to him, but at some point it seems like practicality would win out. Like, I can understand avoiding him if she was scared for her safety or if it would otherwise come with some type of strings, but if all she has to do is literally make a quick call to fix things, it seems a little unbelievable that she’d choose not to. Especially when there’s kids involved. Like, at the very least she should be taking the money and saving it for them even if she’s too proud to use it.
More importantly, it detracted from June’s story as a “survivor”-type narrative to me, since it seems like she’s just being too hard-headed to do the reasonable thing. It’s also not fair to the kids since child support is for the child, not for the parent.
Another thing I didn’t really understand was the whole Nina wanting to go off and disappear. Why? I get that she’d been embarrassed recently due to Brandon leaving her, but it seems like a pretty minor scandal.
Oh one last thing that kind of bugged me is that the prologue very explicitly states that “by 7:00 A.M., the coastline of Malibu was engulfed in flames”, but actually the fire only starts at 7:00 A.M. and doesn’t start burning stuff up till later.
Would love to hear what others thought about these things — feel free to drop a comment if you have thoughts!