Review of BIG LITTLE LIES by LIANE MORIARTY
(review based on an advance reading copy)
Wow, wow, wow. I expected this would be a good book and that I would like it (otherwise, I wouldn’t have read it in the first place), but I massively underestimated how good. The novel pulled me in immediately with a hilariously satiric portrayal of wealthy mothers and then snuck up on me with a slow, steady slide into something far more serious.
We know from the very start of the novel that someone was killed at the elementary school’s parent trivia bee. Then the story backtracks to the start of the school year with excerpts from present-day police interviews regarding the inevitable crime tagged on at the end of each chapter. The chapters are short, too, adding to a sense of an extremely fast pace.
The premise sounded silly to me, almost trite even. Once I started reading, I decided it is a little silly, in the best sense, and threw out that word “trite” altogether. For one thing, it’s silly in an incredibly smart and sophisticated sense. Moriarty describes these mothers' questionable priorities with a laugh-out-loud dry wit. Some of the funniest lines are the most insightful. Then, slowly, the novel takes a more serious turn. The shift sneaks up on you. Moriarty opens with almost entirely humor and gradually interweaves heart-wrenching sincerity into her formula. The story tilts ever more towards the serious end the farther it progresses until what I would have described in the first few chapters as a hilarious book turns in to what I would call a grave, unflinching story with some comic relief.
Though entirely unique, BIG LITTLE LIES joins a long established collection of tales about how we all put on public faces that hide the hidden complications we suffer in private. One school project emphasizes this disparity. A kindergarten teacher requires her students to draw a family tree and, wouldn’t you know, most parents hate this assignment. There’s the little boy who is the product of a one-night-stand and tells his mother that the teacher said he has to put a name down for his father. There are the divorced families with new stepparents and half-siblings that can leave one scratching their head at all the extra lines on their tree. Then there are the families with perfect trees that fit expectations to a tee, except the implied perfection is a deceit.
BIG LITTLE LIES features a large cast of parents and their children, but primarily focuses on three women: Madeline, Celeste, and Jane. Madeline and Celeste are already fast friends at the start of the novel, but they both meet newly arrived Jane for the first time when she helps Madeline with a twisted ankle. Madeline is the one with the complicated family tree. She had a daughter (Abigail) with her first husband who one day decided he couldn’t handle parenthood and left them. Now she’s happily remarried with two more children from the second marriage. Except her ex-husband had to move back to town with his young, infuriatingly sweet and polite (and sincere about it) new wife and their daughter. To rub salt in the wound, Abigail not only forgives her father for the abandonment but seems to prefer his family to Madeline’s. Celeste is the perfect-on-the-surface character. Absolutely gorgeous with an equally handsome, rich, charming, and generous husband and two adorably rowdy twin boys. The only thing Madeline doesn’t envy about Celeste’s life is the boys’ ceaseless shouting. Celeste is quiet and sometimes comes off a little inane with the way she’s constantly daydreaming and losing track of the conversation. In her viewpoint, though, it becomes apparent that behavior that might seem ditsy is actually just distracted as she considers her life and her options. Jane’s name was obviously deliberately selected to put the reader in mind of “Plain Jane.” She’s a single mother who wants nothing more than to hunker under the radar and avoid others’ scrutiny...which turns out to be hard after she unintentionally befriends outgoing Madeline. Incredible, dynamic characters, all of them.
You need to be patient and trust the author with a construction that involves any jumping back and forth in time. Each chapter ends with snippets of interviews regarding the impending death. We don’t know who died yet let alone why the police suspect murder and who they suspect. Like the rest of the book, these snippets are mostly funny at first when interviewees make catty remarks or obsess about the trivial in a murder investigation, but the comments become more meaningful as the reader figures out who everyone is and how they fit into the bigger picture.
Speaking of the death, I worried a little about that part. You know right from the beginning that someone will die and I feared a cop-out sense if Moriarty killed off a trivial character after so much build-up or didn’t handle a more prominent character’s death satisfactorily. I refuse to hint at who dies, but I will say that I felt entirely satisfied with how the author handles her selection.
I made a few correct predictions far in advance, but didn’t like the book any less for that. I still felt the anticipated revelations with my gut and didn’t call perhaps the biggest twist revealed in the chaotic climax.
This is an extremely discussion-worthy novel. Moriarty’s debut novel, THE HUSBAND’S SECRET, has been selected for countless book groups and now I understand why and hope the same happens with BIG LITTLE LIES.
My only warning has nothing to do with the quality of the book. Moriarty depicts her characters with such raw, heartfelt honesty that I fear some themes of domestic abuse and other violence will likely be triggering for anyone who has experienced something similar in their own life.
An unassuming book, BIG LITTLES LIES is smart and well-written. I expect I will reflect back on this one for years to come.