Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty – Book Review

This was a perfect book to spend time with while staying in bed with a nasty head cold: entertaining, fast-paced, insanely readable, deftly mixing froth and humour with heavier subjects like bullying, domestic abuse and single parenthood. My view of the novel is inevitably coloured by the excellent HBO mini-series, which I watched first, so I can’t help but compare. “The book is better” is a very routine remark about onscreen adaptations, but in this case I thought that both versions had their particular strengths and weaknesses.

Since I don’t plan on having children, I expect that my personal view of the school politics will forever remain confined to the perspective of a child, rather than a parent who, in these times, is expected to be hundred times more involved with the school life than my parents ever were. So this satirical novel about the complicated dynamics among the parents whose children attend the Pirriwee Public School in Sydney’s Northern Beaches is almost like an insight into a different world.

There are all your typical cliques, working mums vs stay-at-home mums, parents who think that their children are oh-so-special, a bullying incident that splits the parents into warring camps, and so on. Like the TV series, the book is counting down towards the parents’ Elvis and Audrey trivia night, where Something Bad Happens and you don’t know who the victim or the perpetrators are. It’s to the book’s credit that knowing the answers beforehand doesn’t diminish the enjoyment one bit.

The chain of events is kicked off by the arrival of Jane, a young single mother who is soon taken under their wing by older Madeleine and Celeste. Madeleine is a force of nature with no filter who loves and hates with equal passion, and whose formerly no-good ex-husband has moved into the same beachside community with his new hippy-dippy wife and a daughter who’s attending the same class as Madeleine’s youngest. Worse still, Madeleine’s teenage daughter seems to favour her biological father over her mother, which makes Madeleine’s blood boil.

Celeste is the kind of beautiful woman who seems to have everything: strangers’ admiration, a successful good-looking husband who adores her, two rambunctious boys, and a dream beachside house. But her perfect facade conceals an abusive marriage she can’t bring herself to break away from. Jane, meanwhile, hides a traumatic past that comes to colour her view of everything, including doubts about her own son’s character and inclinations.

This is a lengthy book and many pages are filled with the characters’ everyday chatter about trivial things, which I normally find incredibly off-putting but strangely didn’t mind in this book. I was surprised to find out how much more satirical and funny the novel is compared to the TV series’ decidedly more earnest feel, though I thought that both versions did a great job showing its leading ladies deal with their issues in a way that’s realistic and non-sappy. That is, other than the ending, which I felt was much better executed in the book and explained the motivations of the guilty person in a more satisfying fashion. The mini-series felt too much like ha, bet you didn’t expect *this* character to do it huh? and I’m not a fan of this empty gotcha! type of thing.

On the downside, the gimmick of the little asides and gossip by the peripheral characters sprinkled throughout the book got annoying pretty fast. Also, a few important side characters are actually better fleshed out in the series, so it was a bit disappointing to find their characterisations much flatter in the novel. Overall though, I enjoyed this well-written, well-constructed book enormously.

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