Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid review: a great beach read

·4-min read

In Taylor Jenkins Reid’s world, people fall headlong in love, punch mirrors in fits of self-loathing, struggle against the odds and come out stronger. I want to visit, and so will you.

Jenkins Reid has form. After publishing five novels, she hit the big time in 2019 with Daisy Jones and the Six, the tale of a fictional Fleetwood Mac-esque band set in 1970s LA. A bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, it caught the eye of Reese Witherspoon, Fairy Godmother of book adaptation, and the mini-series, starring Riley Keough and Sam Claflin, is scheduled to drop on Amazon Prime later this year.

I’m delighted to confirm that with Malibu Rising – a novel as redolent of California dreamin’ as a Lana del Rey track – Jenkins Reid has lost none of her touch. The titular setting is a stroke of genius, for decades of brand appropriation have conditioned even hardened cynics to associate Malibu with carefree glamour. Yet every Eden has its serpent, and beyond Malibu’s rolling breakers and high showbiz headcount lie universal heartaches.

Imagine Blue Water High and Selling Sunset had a lovechild, or Jackie Collins rewrote The O.C., then combine these ingredients with warm, propulsive storytelling, and you’ll get an inkling of this family saga’s escapist magic. Where Daisy Jones and the Six was framed as an oral history with multiple first-person narrators, Malibu Rising is told in a third person that hops between consciousnesses.

Its dual timeline intersects the years 1956–1982 with the events of one fateful day, Saturday 27th August 1983, which crescendo to a dramatic finale. As in Celeste Ng’s novel Little Fires Everywhere (TV adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon), we know from the opening flash-forward that this story ends in flames.

The four Riva siblings are a unit, bound by their famous father Mick’s abandonment and mother June’s death. Where their parents fell short, Nina picked up the slack, dropping out of school to care for her younger siblings. Money was a persistent headache, until now: Nina is a model married to a tennis pro, Jay is a championship surfer, Hud’s a photographer and Kit’s talent hasn’t yet been recognised. The historic chapters trace their parents’ whirlwind romance, Mick’s meteoric rise, philandering and neglect, and June’s alcoholic decline.

The Rivas’ annual party has swelled with their renown to become the hottest ticket in Lalaland. Everyone’s invited, if they know Nina’s address, but she’s dreading this year’s. Her husband’s left her, and her pain is being splashed across the tabloids. Plus, Jay’s nursing some bad news, Hud’s in love with his brother’s ex and Kit’s sick of never having kissed anyone, aged twenty. The countdown begins: can the Rivas’ bond survive this night of revelation and reckoning?

Jenkins Reid sweeps us along on a riptide of emotion and well-paced tension. So assured is her storytelling, Malibu Rising is both immersive and relaxing, as every great beach read should be. She doesn’t shy away from cliché, having no compunction about lines such as ‘maybe he’d always known he couldn’t escape himself’. This makes for easy reading, as the eye races over familiar phrases – but the emotional depth is real. It’s there in her sensitive depictions of betrayal, alcoholism and the distorting drug of fame. You root for her characters, especially dutiful Nina, imprisoned by selflessness and the double-edged sword of beauty; of all the Rivas’ awakenings, hers is the most euphoric.

The novel explores the tension between personal and collective responsibility, with Mick representing rampant individualism and Nina excessive self-sacrifice. As a character defined by absence and the false intimacy of stardom, Mick is the least developed – it’s unclear whether he’s rocker or crooner, but his celebrity is stratospheric. Piercing the illusions of fame and freedom, like many before it, the story reminds us that ‘paradise doesn’t exist’, and that, although we are products of our history, we don’t have to repeat our parents’ mistakes.

Malibu Rising is a love song to surf culture and an evocative but not rose-tinted portrait of 1980s hedonism in a much-mythologised city. With its satisfying narrative arc, clear messages and pinup cast, it has (Witherspoon?) screen adaptation written all over it.

Surrender to its spell, like the Rivas to a tide.

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid (Hutchinson, £12.99)

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