Sunday, August 17, 2014

Big Little Lies

by Liane Moriarty
Putnam      2014
480 pages     Fiction

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty was a major surprise to me. At first glance, it appears to be a romp through kindergarten with the kids and their parents, but oh, it is so much more. It is brilliant.

In the first chapter of Big Little Lies, we discover that that someone is going to die on "Trivia Night", a fundraiser  at the elementary school on the Pirriwee Peninsula near Sydney Australia. So, the reader is primed for the death, but we don't know who, how or why someone will die. That isn't revealed until the end of the book, and quite frankly, while the revelation of the dead person is not a shock, the person committing the so-called crime is a big shock.

Moriarty has small town life down pat, including small town gossiping and small town helicopter parents. And the reader thinks that this is what the book is going to be about. So, by the time the subject matter gets darker, the readers who settled in for a light read becomes more and more engrossed and more and more distraught. What calamity is going to happen to one of these characters that have become so finely developed?

We meet a group of kindergarten parents on orientation day. Jane is a young single parent of Ziggy, the product of a one night stand. Madeline has three children, including a kindergartener named Chloe. Unfortunately for Madeline, her ex-husband also has a kindergartener in the same class with her daughter.  While Madeline is the glue that holds this small group together, she is not without her problems. Her teenage daughter from her first marriage wants to live with her dad, and Madeline is saddened by this turn of events. And then there is Celeste, the rich and beautiful wife of a hedge fund manager, and the mother of twins, Max and Josh. For all her beauty, Celeste is a lost soul.

Almost immediately problems arise for Jane because Ziggy is accused of bullying the daughter of a school helicopter mother, and petitions circulate among the parents to suspend him from school. Various parents weigh in on the problems with Ziggy, and the viciousness and pettiness increases. We are continuously reminded that it is getting closer to the Trivia Night at school, and the tension rises both at school and in the homes of the three families. 

The entire plot unfolds in a chatty, offhand kind of way—just like any relationship novel. The seemingly minor incidents build in such a way that the reader becomes totally caught up in the events. There's lots of bitchiness and cattiness that bring an immense amount of pleasure to the reader. Even at the Trivia Night, when the death happens, the narrative is so delightful that the humor almost overrides the tragedy of the event. I don't want to tell more of the plot because I want you to be as involved and surprised as I was.

However, all is not light and breezy. Moriarty delves deeply into parenting styles, bullying, and more importantly, domestic abuse. Her portrayal of the sadistic husband is extremely chilling, and the way in which the victim-wife responds to the abuse is exactly on target. She catches the reader completely off guard, and the response is almost visceral. The Washington Post says that "Big Little Lies tolls a warning bell about the big little lies we tell in order to survive."

 Readers have been almost universal in their love of this book, and the review in the New York Times was glowing. Moriarty's earlier book The Husband's Secret was also a favorite with readers. I may need to try that next. Early on, I was reminded of Where'd You Go Bernadette which I read a year or so ago and loved, but I have to say that Big Little Lies is much deeper and denser. 

Liane Moriarty's website.

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