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.