Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The central event in Big Little Lies is something that, in a different book or story, could be summarized in two or three pages of exposition. It’s a dramatic sequence, to be sure, but the trick of Liane Moriarty’s cunning novel is to tease this moment, then back away and rewind, then slowly peel back layers until the full context and complexity of the moment can be understood. Thus, when the scene finally happens, the impact of it and the shocking, fascinating, deliriously entertaining chaos of it are keenly understood and richly felt. It’s a master class on building tension.
The event in question is an unspecified tragedy that takes place at a fundraising function (a Trivia Night) for a public school in a small Australian beach town. The introduction teases the Trivia Night from a remote point of view and then backs up six months and focuses on the stories of three of the night’s key players, each of whom take turns with a deeply intimate third-person narrative style that I can only describe as arresting. As the story unfolds from these distinct points of view, Ms Moriarty takes great care to skip to just the most pertinent or character-revealing moments, and while the book is long and detailed, it has short, punchy chapters and is never, ever a slog to read. Throughout, reality-show-style confessional transcripts appear, discussing the events leading up to the Trivia Night, the night itself, and its aftermath in cleverly obscure language from the perspectives of some of the people involved.
These flashback-y transcripts are a gimmick, sure, but they’re one of the most effective gimmicks I’ve seen. The book reads like a screenplay, with sharp directorial cuts and a phenomenal sense of pacing. But don’t mistake this book for a disposable summer beach page-turner quickly forgotten once the back cover is closed. Ms Moriarty uses her ability to capture the reader’s full and suddenly ravenous attention to open the door wide for her remorselessly bladed and often downright hilarious insights. This may be one of the finest satires I’ve read since Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” and the book’s commentary about the politics of public schools, the collective hallucination of suburban existence, and the messy necessity of true friendship is so on point it pricks and draws blood. It’s scathing, laugh-out-loud funny, and absolutely horrifying all at once. There are so many insights on the inner lives of women: working mothers, single mothers, stay-at-home moms, women with supportive husbands, women in terrible marriages, directionless women, women with dark secrets, dark pasts, dark thoughts, personas, nuances, layers, contradictions, fears, truimphs. Big Little Lies’s characters are alive in ways most authors only wish they could manage and it’s all done in such an insightful, delightful manner that you don’t see it happening until it’s done.
The book is not utterly flawless. Ms Moriarty takes liberties with her three central protagonists when several of them appear on page together, hopping sometimes confusingly from viewpoint to viewpoint. She occasionally structures sentences in ways that tripped me up, and I found a bit of the transcript gimmick and a lot of the early character-introduction sequences needlessly confusing and overwhelming with lots of new names and relationships. Eventually the key names and connections did sort themselves out but there are places where a minor character reappears at a key moment and there’s a few minutes of disorientation until something re-contextualizes them. But it’s worth noting that there is another version of this novel that could have been written at twice the length wherein it might rival a Russian novel in terms of characters with their own point of view chapters. And next to the scope and skill on display everywhere else in this book, these are very minor complaints indeed.
I’ll say simply that I loved this book. I tore through the last two hundred pages at a breakneck (for me) pace, completing them in a single evening, and was thrilled to see the conclusion met every one of my sky-high expectations. I’d recommend this book to anyone, but I kind of especially want to recommend it to male readers specifically for the way it draws attention to the multifaceted ways that women view each other and themselves. After so much pop culture time spent distilling and generalizing women down to a set of simple stereotypes for the sake of “comedy” it’s so refreshing to see the real unpacking of women’s thought processes and self-aware complexities. And, it happens to result in genuine laughs that are much funnier than any of that other reductionist crap you usually see. It’s refreshing, dark, honest, hilarious, thrilling, heartfelt, and completely satisfying. Put it on your to-read list and thank me later.