Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Book Review: "Big Little Lies" by Liane Moriarty

You know those books that keep you up reading late into the night? For me, Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies was one of those books. Initially, I was a bit thrown off by the structure of the story; moving back in time and counting down to the big event that the entire story builds toward with inserts of police interview narrative taking place after the big event. In the beginning, I read the police interview snippets and only hoped to remember everyone's name to see if the information became relevant. I soon found that those interview snippets reinforced one of the main themes in the book: the power of gossip and biased observations.

Once I got used to the structure, I was quickly swept up into the lives of the three main perspective characters. There is Madeline, a force of a woman and mother, who toes the line between being headstrong and being a bully. Bullying is another theme in this story, and Moriarty makes it clear that it is not a behavior contained to childhood playgrounds, but a behavior that can follow people into their adult lives with horrific psychological effects. Madeline is an aging, re-married divorcee struggling with the fact that her ex-husband and his perfect yoga Barbie doll of a wife have moved to the same town and their children all attend the same school. I found Madeline to be an acquired taste as she is rather rash in her decision making and much more likely to follow emotional impetus than take a rational approach.

Whereas, Jane is a character that is much more rational-minded. Jane is younger than most of the mothers she encounters as her son's new school. Jane is a single-mother who works to support herself and doesn't know how to ask for help. Perhaps this is why it is so easy for Madeline to bring Jane under her wing when some unfairness begins to circulate among the kindergarten class parents. Madeline becomes Jane's protector against the vicious rumor mill perpetuated by the hierarchy of mother groups. Jane is meek in the face of confrontation, and readers learn her truth in a reveal about her past that has a predictable, but well executed build. While the details of her big secret were not something I was able to predict, her behavior repeatedly suggested some past trauma.

The third character perspective is that of Celeste. The mother of twin boys, Celeste is the beautiful, unemployed wife of a very rich man. Celeste appears to live the dream on the surface of her life, but as soon as the surface is scratched she is revealed as the victim of domestic abuse. The cycle of abuse and Celeste's altered interior were very successfully realized. I believed her inner dialogue and the struggle to rationalize her husband's behavior. Though she is close friends with Madeline and Jane, neither of them know her secret.

We don't know what happens at the school sponsored charity event until the very end of the book, but the police interview snippets and heavy foreshadowing allow readers to take a guess. The reader knows someone is dead, and while we are ensconced in the drama unfolding in these women's lives it becomes nearly unbearable to imagine that any of them are the victim or the perpetrator. The roles of victim and perpetrator are constantly examined in different ways in Moriarty's story. Through the eyes of these characters we see that the dynamic of abuse and what it does to the victim and the perpetrator is something that is innate in the human condition. There will always be those who are drunk with their own self-importance and ego-driven power who prey on the meek and innocent.

Sussing out whodunit was not a simple task, as any number of scenarios were set up to play out, with characters colliding in their interconnecting webs of secrets. I thought that aspect of the story was achieved with a great deal of success, and the night I reached the unfolding of the big event was the night I stayed up reading until 3:00 AM because I had to know. Moriarty delivered a very readable and well-paced story that had a believable balance of laughs and upsets. It's not a depressing read, but it's not a happy read either. If you're looking for a story with sustained suspense and well-developed characters with layers of secrets that constantly send you back to the drawing board to reconstruct your image of them then you will like Big Little Lies. 

I'm very interested to see what HBO does with the adapted series appearing in 2017. I'm glad it's a limited series and not a movie, as I just don't think that Madeline, Jane and Celeste could be sculpted in the frame of a movie. There is so much to these women, their relationships with each other, men, and their children that wouldn't be flushed out as successfully in a movie. I will be interested to see how they adapt the structure of the story. To learn more about the HBO adaptation, click here.

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