I’ve seen Liane Moriarty’s books getting mostly positive reviews on this site, so when I saw a random copy of Big Little Lies in the break room at work, nestled among old business standbys like Good to Great and piles of free Westways magazines, I snatched it up.
I am not the target demographic for this novel. I am not a suburban housewife, nor a single mother, nor a grade school teacher, all of whom would be able to identify with the characters more than I can. But I so enjoyed reading this book, perhaps because of the good-natured teasing of all of the above–from the peanut allergy joke on page 34 (“She’s on the PTA and she has a horrendously gifted daughter with a mild nut allergy. So she’s part of the Zeitgeist, lucky girl”) to the gentle mockery toward giving your children fancy names (“That’s Amabella, by the way, not Annabella. It’s French. We didn’t make it up”).
The novel starts out on the evening of the Pirriwee Public School Trivia Night, where parents have gathered to have a good time and raise money to buy new SMART Boards for the school. Pirriwee is a lovely beach community in Australia with an economically diverse population. Here, the children of high-income, nanny-employing parents go to school side-by-side with the children of the traditional blue-collar types who have lived here for decades, so there’s bound to be some friction. But this particular Trivia Night, we soon learn, ends in someone’s death. Moriarty then takes us back to 6 months before Trivia Night and describes the events that led up to the fateful evening, interspersed with quotes from parents who are presumably answering questions from a police detective.
The three main characters are all easy to like. Celeste is so beautiful that men literally trip over themselves when they see her for the first time, but she has an ethereal, distracted quality that suggests she’s imperfect. Plus, she is possibly the kindest character in the novel. Jane, the new single mother in town, clearly carries around a pain that she keeps secret from everyone around her, from her new friends to her close family. Moriarty demonstrates Jane’s innate sadness early in the novel, when she writes, “As Jane looked around her, she felt that dissatisfied feeling she often experienced when she was somewhere new and lovely. She couldn’t quite articulate except with the words If only I were here.” And Madeline. . .how I love irrepressible, sarcastic, just-a-tad-bit-mean-spirited Madeline. I’ll admit she went too far by stealing the thunder from Amabella’s birthday party by inviting a good chunk of potential party guests to Disney on Ice, but she did it out of loyalty to Jane, whose son Ziggy wasn’t invited to Amabella’s big event. Petty, for sure, and inexcusable. But the Madeline I love is a defender of women, as when she shuts down Jane’s mother for being self-deprecating about her own body (“She had no patience for this sort of talk. It drove her to distraction the way women wanted to bond over self-hatred”); she’s in a healthy marriage with Ed, her loyal 2nd husband who is not only a stand-up father and step-father, but who acts as a foil to Madeline’s personality (” ‘Celeste? Beautiful?’ said Ed. ‘Can’t say I’ve noticed’ “); she’s a vulnerable mother who is tormented by her daughter Abigail choosing to be with the ex-husband who abandoned her when Abigail was a baby (“Now he’s got Bonnie, who is nicer and younger and prettier than me, he’s got a brand-new daughter who can write out the whole alphabet, and now he’s gettin Abigail too! He got away with it all. He hasn’t got a single regret”). Mostly I love Madeline, though, because she’s self aware. She knows all this about herself, knows when she’s being a bitch, and tries to do better.
This novel does touch on serious topics like body image, shame, bullying, domestic violence and. . .um. . . murder. If there’s a weakness, it’s that Moriarty never really commits to the horror of those themes, always keeping it on the lighter side of devastating. Although I liked this novel very much, I’m slightly torn about the ending. The literary critic in me thinks perhaps it wrapped up a little too neatly. Yet, the end was emotionally satisfying, and I’m not sure how well I could bear some of the alternatives. Kind of like how I know Return of the Jedi would have been a better movie if Han Solo had died, but then my heart would be broken. So in some ways I know Moriarty went too soft, but I’m mostly ok with it.