Review: “Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty

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When I picked up my first Liane Moriarty at an airport a couple of years ago, I had to choose between an exploding rose and an exploding lollipop. From what little I could gather from the cover, The Husband’s Secret, my alternative, was about women with ethical and emotional issues, men with possibly criminal ones, and contentious goings-on at a school. If you’ve read Big Little Lies, or seen the Reese Witherspoon-Nicole Kidman-Shailene Woodley drama now on HBO, you’ll know it has more of the same.

I have always found Ms. Moriarty’s books to be long and gossipy as if she’s using stalling as a literary device. She introduces several sets of major characters, cutting back and forth among them, and scatters the narrative with foreshadowing about the terrible, terrible night — on which something terrible happened. The book is peppered with parents’ voices commenting cryptically and amusingly about whatever it was. Was the root cause a French nanny? An erotic book club? Head lice? Seeing how its predecessor was a #1 New York Times bestseller, Ms. Moriarty seems assured that her readers will happily plow through countless minor incidents to find out.

After a calamity has been established, we jump back to a chapter called “Six Months Before the Trivia Night.” And the book establishes what a power-crazed group parents of kindergarteners can be. The book is set on a scenic peninsula outside Sydney, Australia, near a beautiful beach, where there is only one school, which must accommodate children of very different backgrounds. So there are rich, bossy power moms and mousy stay-at-home types. One of the mice is the literally plain Jane, a single mother trying to make ends meet. New to the area, she gets into trouble before school has even started. At the end of orientation day, a hotshot mother with a high-powered job accuses Jane’s son, Ziggy, of having tried to hurt her daughter. Ziggy becomes a pariah, and Jane becomes a victim.

Two other moms come to Jane’s rescue. One is Celeste, who is impossibly perfect and beautiful — impossibly because, in Ms. Moriarty’s literary universe, everybody is hiding something awful. The other is Madeline Martha Mackenzie, for whom the wearing of spike heels is a main character trait and who tends to get outraged at the drop of a hat. Despite her apparent bubbly nature, Madeline was abandoned by a husband who now has a New Age-y wife and a young daughter who is in the same class with Madeline’s daughter with her second husband. And on and on it goes.

As the book proceeds and the schadenfreude kicks in, we discover just how secretly miserable these women are. Suffice it to say that bullying and cruelty were major themes throughout, with some well-researched parts about domestic violence thrown in. As for the question of whether Ziggy, who turns out to be the product of a one-night stand, really is a vicious boy at heart, the book traces a long strand of DNA right into one of the other kindergarten families.

Ms. Moriarty writes all this in an easy, girlfriend-y style that occasionally sounds flat. And a low-level bitchiness thrums throughout the narrative, becoming one of its indispensable pleasures. The witnesses’ descriptions of whatever happened are usually comically distorted, as in a game of telephone, so that everyone’s understanding of what happened at Trivia Night is at best half-wrong. The Australian busybody is a type very much in evidence here, and if there’s one trait all the mothers share, it’s wanting to bad-mouth all the other ones.

Ms. Moriarty also sends up the kinds of crises that rise to epic proportions in the hothouse of a contentious kindergarten. Woe betide the mother who loses Harry the Hippo, the official class toy. Here’s what she gets for trying to make reparations: “That cheap synthetic toy she replaced it with smelled just terrible. Made in China. The hippo’s face wasn’t even friendly.” Then there are the opposing forces that face off over a petition to ban birthday cupcakes. (“It’s so adversarial. Why can’t you just make a suggestion?”) But by the time the teacher insists that the kids make posters illustrating their family trees, real harm is being done over a supposedly innocent matter. Ziggy doesn’t even know his father’s name. And all hell will break loose if Jane reveals it.

The ferocity that Ms. Moriarty brings to scenes of masculine sadism really is shocking. A seemingly fluffy book suddenly touches base with vicious reality, in ways that gives Big Little Lies a definite edge over her earlier works. She’s done her homework well in describing the uh-oh moments, the tiny slights, the faint changes in the atmosphere around a charming, loving Dr. Jekyll who is about to turn into Mr. Hyde, and the battered woman who has learned to live with this and make excuses for it. Big Little Lies isn’t likely to attract much of a male readership, aside from the demographic of guys who enjoy being demonized. But it champions its women with a handy, all-purpose rationale: Sometimes doing the wrong thing is also right.

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Review: “The Last Anniversary” by Liane Moriarty

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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.