I’m a little late on the Big Little Lies train, but I couldn’t let the train pass altogether without hopping on. I’ve been meaning to read a Liane Moriarty book for months, and although this one wasn’t originally my first choice, I love a good book-to-TV adaptation and I had to check it out.
About the book: On the Pirriwee Pennisula, children come first. Maybe children always come first, but for this batch of kindergarten moms, mysterious bullying in their kids’ class divides the parents even more dramatically than the children. Although the child being hurt won’t confess the identity of her abuser, she does select a scapegoat who, along with his mother, takes the brunt of the blame. No one can be sure whether this little boy is bullying or not, so of course the parents get involved, instructing their children to stay away from him or to be especially nice to the poor wrongly-accused child, depending on their opinions in the matter. Things get even more out of control at a parent event where the truth about the bullying finally comes out–as do some other upsetting details of wrongs that have been committed at the parents’ level. There’s adultery, abuse, even murder–proving that the bullying isn’t confined to the kindergarten class. Jane, Madeline, and Celeste are the three friends at the middle of it all, but even they can’t stop the madness. Someone is going to get hurt. Maybe everyone. Isn’t it possible that the bickering at the adult level is teaching the children to behave the same way toward each other?
“Did anyone really know their child? Your child was a little stranger, constantly changing, disappearing and reintroducing himself to you. New personality traits could appear overnight.”
About the layout: the book opens on a scene at the school trivia night, a parent fundraiser gathering complete with costumes, alcohol, and…death. Our narrator for this scene is a woman who lives across from the school and hears the screams and sees the ambulance coming in. After that, the narration goes back to the beginning of the school year, focusing on the three main parents’ interactions with each other and their children. The timeline proceeds as a countdown, marking how much time is left before the fateful trivia night. Mixed into this chronology, though, the reader also sees dialogue boxes from interviews with the parents and the police detective that come after the trivia night. This way, we see multiple perspectives on the main events both from a present perspective and a future one, after it all blows up at the trivia night.
I don’t want to say this book is catty, because it’s more than that. There are minor characters who seem to be present solely for their cattiness, but it wasn’t the little dramas and confrontations that kept me invested in the story, it was the overarching tension of waiting to discover the child bully and his/her motivations. The thing about Big Little Lies is that it’s full of opinions–sometimes the character who presents them can indicate whether or not they’re meant to be taken seriously, but sometimes it’s up to the reader’s judgment. There are mildly infuriating comments, but there are also comments whose agreeableness surprised and delighted me–comments about how people should treat each other, how to cope with difficult news or events, how unfair the world is in some regards. Here’s one I found interesting:
“I mean, a fat, ugly man can still be funny and lovable and successful…but it’s like it’s the most shameful thing for a woman to be.”
Personally, I really liked the writing style. I found it wonderfully revelatory of different sides of human nature. Except for the catty characters, everyone is sympathizable. Even the “bad” guys, the parents that are set against the main protagonists, aren’t unreasonable. What would you do if your five year-old daughter was being secretly bullied for months? Maybe a lot. It’s great to see a story where every side has its merits. I must have been reading a really early edition of the book, though, because there were a lot of mistakes, typos and mixed up names and details. I mean, no one’s perfect. Sometimes mistakes are missed in published works. This one just seemed to have an unusually high number of them. Even that, though, didn’t turn me off of the writing. Moriarty makes some excellent choices with her adjectives. I would say the writing style was the high point for me here.
The downfall, though, was this:
“Ever since Madeline had first mentioned Saxon’s name on the night of the book club, there had been something niggling at Celeste, a memory from before the children were born…That memory slid into place now, fully intact. As though it had just been waiting for her to retrieve it.”
This is my least favorite thing to see happening in any book, but especially in mysteries and thrillers. It is such a cop out for the biggest clue of the story to have been in the character’s possession the whole time, to be conveniently picked up at the most shocking moment. You may have listened to me rant about this before. The thing is, with mysteries of any pace, the fun is trying to guess whodunit and whether it was the candlestick in the library or the knife in the kitchen, etc. It’s an injustice to the reader to make them guess for 400 pages and then say, “oh, I’ve been holding back the key detail so you never really had any chance at it anyway.” The best mysteries/thrillers are the ones with all the details woven in before the pieces are assembled, in such a way that the big reveal is both obvious and unexpected when it arrives. The memory that Celeste suddenly retrieves here? It could have been woven in earlier to better affect. I would have given this book a whole extra star if it hadn’t been for the short excerpt above. But alas…
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. The fact that I liked the writing style and the story in general up to the point of the misplaced memory indicates to me that I should try another Moriarty book. What Alice Forgot is currently sitting on my shelf, but I’ve also heard good things about The Husband’s Secret. I don’t really know much about either one, but I’ll be eager to give one or both of them a try this summer now that I’ve had a taste of Moriarty’s writing. I’m not sure yet about when I’ll watch the Big Little Lies episodes. Now that I know the whole plot, I think I want to let it settle a bit before I watch.
- For a mystery/thriller with multiple layers (and the key details woven in perfectly without ruining the surprise ending), check out Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes. The protagonist of this story is also a young mother with a small son and drama in the divorce, but this one is about so much more than family and social ties. And, of course, the writing is also superb.
- Megan Miranda’s The Perfect Stranger is also a good choice for readers interested in a teacher tormented by trouble both at school and at home. Although this protagonist isn’t a parent, she must deal with the school drama on top of suspicious and slightly terrifying events occurring at her home that seem to revolve around murder. Things get so much more complicated when it looks like all the incidents are connected.
- You should also try Shari Lapena’s The Couple Next Door if you’re a Big Little Lies fan. This one’s a mystery about a missing baby–the parents go next door for a dinner, leaving the baby asleep in her crib, and return to find her gone. The four at the dinner each have their own secrets–and one of them knows what happened to the baby. Or at least, they thought they did…
What’s next: I’m reading Sarah J. Maas’s YA/NA A Court of Wings and Ruin, finally. This is the third book in the Court of Thorns and Roses series, and I’ve been dying to find out what will happen after the cliffhanger of book two. But book two was a bit of a guilty pleasure, and I didn’t like book one as much, so I’m trying to keep my expectations at an appropriate level while also admitting that I probably will read all 700 pages of ACOWAR in just a couple of days.
Do you like to stay on top of popular book trends, or just read what you feel like, when you feel like it? Do you read popular books after the popularity has waned?
The Literary Elephant