Having read quite a bit of chick lit this year, I’ve found that these novels tend to vary widely upon where they fall on the spectrum. On one end, you’ll have you’ll have your traditional gooey romances where a happily ever after is a given. On the other end, you’ll have darker stories that could just as well be called literary fiction or mysteries or thrillers. Liane Moriarty’s early novel, The Last Anniversary, belongs to the latter category and confounds a number of genre expectations.
Sophie Honeywell always wondered if Thomas Gordon was the one she let get away. He was the perfect boyfriend, but on the day he was to propose, she broke his heart. A year later he married his travel agent while Sophie has been mortifyingly single ever since. Now Thomas is back in her life because Sophie has unexpectedly inherited his great-aunt Connie’s house on Scribbly Gum Island — home of the famously unsolved Munro Baby mystery.
Sophie moves onto the island and begins a new life as part of an unconventional family where it seems everyone has a secret. Grace, a beautiful young mother, is feverishly planning a shocking escape from her perfect life. Margie, a frumpy housewife, has made a pact with a stranger while dreamy Aunt Rose wonders if maybe it’s about time she started making her own decisions.
I have to admit that, having heard so much about the hype surrounding Liane Moriarty’s books, I was expecting something very different from this story than what it turned out to be. While the novel does spend time dwelling on the existential angst that apparently comes with being single and childless at the age of 39, it’s far more than one woman’s race against her biological clock. In addition to some of the more lighthearted fare encountered throughout the narrative, Moriarty engages with a number of challenging themes thoughtfully and unflinchingly. The most prominent of these was the postpartum depression experienced by the outwardly unflappable Grace, presented in a raw, unrelenting yet sympathetic way. While other issues like rape and emotional abuse were also raised, they were addressed in a rather superficial manner. However, it is evident that Moriarty has a knack for balancing challenging themes with the less confrontational parts of the narrative in a way that doesn’t trivialize them.
While the story itself follows a rather predictable path, what’s special about this book are its characters and its setting. The setting of Scribbly Gum Island is beautifully rendered, and Moriarty’s evident attention to milieu is augmented by a cast of characters who slide perfectly into it, with the two bridged together by the author’s profound understanding of what being an Australian means. Moriarty avoids the ponderously overt approach to “doing Australian” injected with such painful determination into so many Australian novels (or worse, novels that aren’t Australian, but try to be), and instead allows her characters’ culture to shine through in a number of snippets that will have readers familiar with the plight of the aspirational classes nodding along.
Despite having a rather large cast for a novel this size, Moriarty’s skill with characterisation ensures that each of them leaves an impression. However, some of the male characters in the book did seem to be left rather one-dimensional and comparatively underdeveloped. Given the diversity of female characters in the book and the balanced approach taken to their actions present and past, the condemnatory approach taken towards the male characters is all the more noticeable.
While The Last Anniversary is, for the most part, a rather well-written novel, with a style that veers from fluffy to astonishingly cruel as needed, this sense of authorial control is not displayed so well at the narrative level. The mystery surrounding Scribbly Gum Island is perhaps played up a little too much, particularly given the fairly mundane (and easily guessable) truth behind it, and I can’t help but feel that the book could have been streamlined a little by reducing the emphasis on this particular plot point. Similarly, there’s some redundancy in Sophie’s quest for love and romance, and this results in a certain amount of tedium that detracts from an otherwise quick and zippy plot.
The Last Anniversary turned out to be a mostly pleasant surprise for me. While it’s certainly not a flawless work, it’s certainly thoroughly engaging and readers will find themselves getting easily caught up in the complex familial machinations of the residents of Scribbly Gum Island. Moriarty has a considerable knack for characterisation and works hard to balance the darker elements of the plot with moments of delightful levity, resulting in a read that is somehow both insouciant and thoughtful at the same time.