Book Review: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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A friend of mine recommended this book to me last year with the comment that it “reiterated my choice to not have kids. I think you might like this book, but don’t hate me if you don’t.” She has a history of recommending books that are long, sweeping, epic sagas and take long journeys through the lives of multiple characters in such detail that it is painful and mind-numbing to me. (Each to their own, right?)

And when I told my (married) sister (with three children) I was reading this book, she looked at me strangely and said, “I didn’t think it was your kind of novel.” She wasn’t wrong. Without knowing anything more about it than the information revealed in the extremely small blurb, I didn’t think it was my kind of novel either. Parents, children, school participation, gossip, feuds and a murder, a slightly atypical suburban nightmare but still a nightmare nonetheless. As someone who has chosen not to take the traditional wife, husband, 2.4 kids path, I suspected I was going to be not just disappointed with this book but bored stiff.

Savour this moment because you won’t hear me say this (or see me write this) very often. I was wrong. So very wrong. Gleefully, gloriously wrong.

Big Little Lies is the story of Madeleine, Celeste and Jane, three parents who have children starting kindergarten. Madeline is a mother of three, abandoned by her first husband when their daughter was a newborn and now happily remarried. Celeste is a mother of two (twin boys), married, rich, beautiful, smart and adored by everyone in town who thinks she has a perfect life. Jane is the newly-arrived mother of one, a single parent in a town that doesn’t have too many single parents and with a son named Ziggy in a town that doesn’t have too many parents who would name their child Ziggy.

But, of course, as the title suggests, not everything in the lives of these women or any of the other characters who populate the fictional town of Pirriwee is as it seems. Before the reader has even settled in with a cup of tea and a cookie, five-year-old Ziggy has been accused of bullying behaviour against another classmate at kindergarten orientation and a divide appears between the parents with Madeleine, Celeste and Jane on one side and most parents on the other.

The story reveals almost immediately that someone has died at the local school’s trivia night to raise funds for “smart boards” (whatever they are), then rewinds more than six months to show the events leading up to it and each chapter is supplemented with commentary from other mothers and fathers as they are interviewed by a reporter after the event. It’s a triumph of structure as well as execution as the facts and memories and different viewpoints of each participant and witness slowly dribble out and begin to form a complete narrative.

Liane Moriarty has created a large cast of complex and interesting main and supporting characters, none of whom are copies of each other, just as in real life, despite their commonalities. And she has weaved them into a story that on the face of it should be banal, the kind of suburban drama that goes on every day in every town in every country around the world. But she does it with such superb command of the English language and understanding of the beauty to be found in unremarkable, ordinary, routine daily interactions.

I particularly liked the supporting character of Samantha, who is one of those parents interviewed by the reporter, but who isn’t actually seen in the story until the trivia night. Her observations are peppered with humour and the common sense that is severely lacking in a lot of the other characters as what should have been a minor incident between five-year-olds is whipped up into fever pitch.

Perhaps Liane Moriarty’s greatest achievement is that by the end of the book, not one of the characters seems right or wrong or good or bad. Everyone is simply human and the novel is a study of the grey middle in which most people live their lives between the extremes of black and white.

I ummed and ahhed over whether to give this book 5 stars and I was genuinely torn because it was so good. In the end, I withheld the last star because when you find out who has died, it’s the person who deserved it, which meant it was a little too neatly wrapped up, a little too much of a “happy” ending in a book that spent so much time showing that life and its ongoing endings are rarely neatly wrapped up or happy.

However, this was Liane Moriarty’s sixth book and it has convinced me I also need to read her first five and any future releases. In my mind, there is no better endorsement I can give than saying Big Little Lies is a book that leaves me wanting to read the author’s entire back catalogue.

*First published on Goodreads 16 August 2015

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