Each month, American Express Essentials highlights one definitive literary work, old or new, and across any and all genres. The only determinant is quality: a book that makes life more vivid, more inspiring – a gifted piece of work you want to share. An absolute must-read. Up this month is a delightfully sizzling beach read: Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Malibu Rising, a tale of family, fame, wealth and betrayal. 

If you’ve been anywhere near the literary internet in the past two years, you’ve likely come across a book by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Gen Z readers in particular are devouring the American author’s tales, with titles like Daisy Jones and the Six and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo rising quickly to the top of bestseller lists everywhere, and with highly-anticipated TV adaptations in the works. This month, however, we’ve chosen to focus on one of her lesser-known (relatively speaking) books, a story set in a place synonymous with summer. 

Malibu Rising starts with, well, Malibu catching fire. The coastal California town, now mostly famous for its glitzy homes, sandy beaches and see-and-be-seen social circuit, was once a relatively low-key surfer spot. That’s where Jenkins Reid sets the scene: the laid-back Malibu of 1983. And who better to star in this scene than the four children of Mick Riva: acclaimed rockstar, womaniser and deadbeat dad.

If you’ve read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, you’ll recognise Riva as Evelyn’s fleeting celebrity one-night-stand-turned-husband. Here, he has been promoted from secondary character to (somewhat, this could be debatable) antagonist. For readers already familiar with the author, this book is likely to be the cherry on top. Now, if you’ve never read Jenkins Reid, it’d be wiser to reach for another one of her previous titles before approaching this one. 

To Mick Riva’s credit, and regardless of his absence, his four children are all stable, accomplished people. But then again, that’s more in spite of his absence than thanks to him – early on, the reader learns that Nina, the eldest sibling and a successful fashion model, also main plot protagonist, takes over her mother’s caregiving after the latter passes away due to alcoholism (which was mostly the result of Mick’s abandonment of her and their family). She drops out of high-school to provide for her siblings, and manages to somehow keep them together and out of foster care. She deals with home repairs, doctor’s appointments, her mother’s family’s deteriorating business (a small restaurant that’s been in the family for decades) and, well, anything that one can expect to go wrong when you have a teenager taking care of other teenagers. 

It’s really Nina’s feelings, out of all of the siblings, that seep through the most through the pages of Malibu Rising. While her sibling’s stories are entertaining, and their problems relatable – Kitty’s questioning her identity and finding herself while being surrounded by her famous older siblings will be of particular interest to younger readers, while Jay (a champion surfer) and Hud’s (celebrated photographer) storylines add pace to the novel, the reader is likely to sympathise with Nina’s exhaustion, burnout and resentment the most. A reluctant swimsuit model who resents the right people seem to have over her body and her image, when we meet tall and effortlessly stunning Nina she’s just been left by her husband, a famed tennis player. For another woman, of course. And she’s throwing a party that night, so no way to bail out.

Of course, it’s not just any party. The infamous Riva party is an annual event that outshines all other parties, and that marks the end of the summer for anyone who’s anyone. Actors, producers, starlets, musicians, sportsmen, fashion models and lucky wannabes all collide into Nina’s Malibu mansion every year (no invite needed, if you know, you know), and no one can ever truly guess how anything will go down, previous parties have ended in all sorts of chaos. And, oh, is Nina dreading it. The stares, the gossip, the crowds, the hassle… Really, she’d rather pass. 

Now, if Nina and her sibling’s storylines are bound to keep readers turning pages, it’s their parents’ story which will make hearts throb. For most of the volume, chapters alternate between the POVs of the Riva children, and their mother and father’s story. We get to see a then unknown Mick Riva wooing a small town teenage June Costas. We get to see them fall profoundly in love with each other, make promises, get married… And then we see how Mick screws it all up once he hits fame. Royally so. He cheats once, and then again, and then again and again… You get the drift. He eventually leaves his wife and children behind for one of his flings. Which of course doesn’t last, so he goes back to June, who forgives and takes him back. 

And then he does it all over again. He, in fact, goes on to marry six different times.

Which is when June’s mental and emotional wellbeing go south, and when the family’s struggles truly begin. It’s what eventually leads to June’s passing and Nina’s takeover. If anything, this book is one about family. 

That being said, don’t expect this to be a family saga or an intricate study of family dynamics and/or generational trauma. It’s truly more of a quick-paced read, something you can even devour during a long flight or layover, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Like much of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s work, it’s unassuming and deliciously fun to read – the perfect book for summer months when your mind is not necessarily hyper-focused on analysing intricate language or complicated plots. If you’re looking to get out of a reading slump, or to get back to your usual reading habit, this might be a perfect fit.

The last portion of the Malibu Rising introduces an array of characters and almost wacky situations, colliding with each other during a very eccentric party, which rapidly gets out of hand, much like [spoiler alert] the fire which eventually closes the book. Booze, drugs, altercations with the authorities, party crashers and exes, kisses and revelations, they all happen within the last section of the story. It’s mayhem. Keep in mind that the entirety of the tale unfolds in just under 24 hours on 27 August 1983, from morning to dawn. That’s one hell of a story to tie up.

Should you read this book? That will be for you to decide. What stands out the most in this book is the way Jenkins Reid explores her characters, their portraiture, so if you love character-driven stories, this is your jam. Now, while the different storylines and points of view mingle and intersperse throughout the novel, don’t go into it expecting some intricate narrative design, as you won’t find it. A light read for most, its tone is certainly youthful, and its cheek is reduced mostly to the mockery of the apparent glitz and glam of celebrity that it so vividly depicts. With that in mind, it’s a book worth picking up. Especially if you’re hitting any Malibu-like beach. The waves and the sand will be both in front of you and within the pages.

EXPLORE FURTHER: What To Read & Watch

If you haven’t already, rush to get a copy of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Daisy Jones & the Six before they’re turned into TV adaptations. If you like the book and would like to move onto something slightly more mature, check out Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart

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