The success of Big Little Lies has made Liane Moriarty a literary superstar, but how do you follow such a titanic global hit? In 2016, the Australian author offered the excellent Truly, Madly, Guilty, which touched on similar themes, exploring the thorny dynamics between a select group of wholly believable characters, albeit on a smaller scale. But for her follow-up, and her eighth novel overall, Moriarty is going for something a little more ambitious.
From early favourites like What Alice Forgot to her contemporary bestsellers, Moriarty’s stories are firmly rooted in the domestic, but with Nine Perfect Strangers, she has taken her characters out of suburbia and into a luxury health resort.
Here, Moriarty really ravages our obsession with ‘self-improvement’ in a sinister plot that almost goes completely off the rails.
We are introduced to a group of very distinct guests embarking on a 10-day retreat at Tranquillum House: there’s the grieving family looking for peace; the health junkie; the couple desperate to save their marriage; the heartbroken divorcee; the former sports star gone to seed; and the romance novelist who has just fallen for an internet dating scam. That last character, Frances, is one of Moriarty’s best creations, and much of the novel is devoted to her often hilarious, occasionally poignant perspective.
Few authors have Moriarty’s talent for multiple narrative, and here she effortlessly handles the characterisation of the nine guests, the resort’s evangelical director and two staff members, rendering each one so vividly and compassionately that you feel as if they could be living next door.
Where Big Little Lies and Truly, Madly, Guilty teased a central mystery that wasn’t uncovered until the final pages, this novel takes a different approach, with the narrative unfolding chronologically. This is where Moriarty stumbles – she is known for her mastery of suspense, but here the story drags in the middle, before taking a bizarre, verging on silly, turn. Her plot, up to this point more psychological comedy than psychological thriller, strains as the compelling antagonist grows into a cartoonish Bond villain.
But the author’s greatest skill has always been her meticulous observations on family, friendship and middle-class social life. Even when the plot tests the limits of readers’ credulity, Moriarty’s unrivalled grasp of the complexity of relationships allows her to just about rescue the story. As we progress past that stark twist and jump forward to the delicious aftermath, Moriarty manages to draw everything together for a deeply and surprisingly satisfying conclusion.
The fifty-something Frances also functions as a meta-commentary on the author’s own industry. She pokes fun at self-rewarding literary circles and flings a novel hailed as “powerful, muscular” across the room in frustration after the drunk, middle-aged hero is propositioned by “a long-legged girl half his age, whispering into his ear”. “In your dreams, buddy!” she thinks, reminding herself to give the author “a consoling little pat on the shoulder” when she next sees him.
As part of the broad genre of ‘popular fiction’, Moriarty defies neat categorisation (although I was directed, bewilderingly, towards the romance section of my local bookshop to find her novels), and through Frances, she reveals a total understanding of where she sits in the landscape of contemporary literature, cleverly undermining what is often seen as a hierarchy, with literary fiction on the top tier and “beach reads” for women at the bottom.
Yet while Frances’ career is on the wane, Moriarty’s is clearly the opposite. Between writing for the second season of Big Little Lies and working with Nicole Kidman on a screen adaptation of Nine Perfect Strangers, her razor-sharp depictions of contemporary life, irresistible humour and intricate plotting are proving to be exactly what readers want.