Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty is not my usual fare—women’s fiction with a suspense element. I might even think it’s in line with Gone Girl, with a focus on women’s lives and a whodunnit. However, I disliked Gone Girl, there’s much less suspense here, and I really, really liked Big Little Lies.
It’s not that often I find a book with such a frothy tone which nevertheless makes incisive observations and tackles difficult issues with sensitivity and nuance, all while building to an extremely effective set piece of a climactic scene.
And the humor! Oh my god. I’m not sure if you have to have been a kindergartner’s mom to fully enjoy this, but I guess I don’t end up reading about the lives of kindergartner moms much, and they are front and center, in all their flawed glory.
Although it’s an ensemble cast, I’d say the main character is Madeline, whose youngest daughter is in kindergarten. But it’s Madeline’s oldest daughter from her first marriage who provides the most story tension when we’re in Madeline’s point of view. She feels she’s losing Abigail to her ex-husband and his young, yoga-loving, vegan wife. I so felt for Madeline! However, the text did a superb job with Bonnie. We’re not really in her point of view, and Madeline never sees her clearly because of her (understandable) issues. Among other things, Madeline’s ex walked out on her when Abigail was a baby. So while Bonnie is seen through Madeline’s eyes in a caricaturish way, the text shows us a little more, builds on that and then the book opens up in the end to really display Bonnie as a complex human being.
I particularly appreciated this because yoga and veganism can be used as stupid character short cuts. (Admittedly, I am vegetarian and I love hot yoga, so I may be extra irritable about these things.)
The book begins with a flash-forward that features a death and a police investigation, then backs up six months, and we learn everything that led up to that death. I was impressed by the big revelation of what exactly happened; it was a gripping scene. I had guessed some things but others not at all—though they made complete sense in retrospect. Really well done.
There are three main women. Madeline, as I’ve described above. She grounds the story, centers it, even if the story is not hers. Celeste is her good friend in a troubled marriage. And Jane is a young single mother who Madeline (and thus Celeste) takes under her wing. Jane, too, has a troubled past.
There are multiple children, and Moriarty does an excellent job of distinguishing them. Madeline’s Chloe is assertive and forthright, Jane’s Ziggy sweet and imaginative. Celeste’s twins are less defined beyond being active whirlwinds, and Bonnie’s Skye is shy and waifish. It’s a touching observation to me that Madeline’s heart aches for Skye because she has Abigail’s mannerisms, and yet Madeline is so angry that her ex-husband’s family has barged into her life, threatening, as she sees it, her relationship with Abigail.
Anyway! I don’t read a lot of mainstream popular books these days, but I’m very glad I did this one. I found it because Jessica’s post here. “I’m attracted to her incisive (sometimes scathing) writing about modern middle class mothering, but her books are also very funny at times.”
Hmmm, in retrospect I must have picked up my descriptor of incisive from this observation, but I do agree! I was moved to tears by the end as well, which given the tone and humor in the book I simply did not expect. So this author is full of surprises.
Apparently Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon are involved in a TV series. I’ll be watching it. I’ll also be going through Moriarty’s backlist.
Here’s the NY Times review of Big Little Lies, though I read a different book, to be honest. (I don’t think the book used a stalling technique. I think one person is hiding something awful, not everyone. I don’t even think the women are all secretly miserable, although the book does zero in on tensions. But Madeline is in a good marriage. So is Bonnie. And all hell will not break loose if Jane reveals a name, which she does in any event. Nor are all the men demonized. Weird review.)