This novel from the Australian best-selling author is by no means a disaster, but it’s fair to say that it truly madly tested my patience. There’s an excellent 300-page book in there somewhere, it’s just a shame about the other 200 pages.
At the heart of the novel is a single incident that happens during an ordinary suburban barbeque, and the ripple effects it causes in the lives of everyone present at the scene, particularly the book’s two central characters, Erika and Clementine. On the surface the two women are best friends, close since childhood, but in reality the friendship was forced on Clementine by her mother who told Clementine to “be kind” since poor Erika had no friends or any kind of stable family life. Their relationship therefore has a touch of unhealthy, rooted as it is in complicated feelings of obligation and guilt.
Years later, Clementine is married to Sam and has two little girls, while Erika and her husband Oliver seem to be content without kids. One day, Clementine, Sam and the girls are set to come over to Erika and Oliver’s for an afternoon tea, but when Erika’s aggressively cheerful, larger-than-life neighbour Vid finds out about the visit, he invites the lot of them to his place. Just before the barbeque at Vid’s, Erika and Oliver drop a bombshell on Clementine and Sam, with a hell of a request that can rattle even the strongest of friendships, and as a result everyone is just a little bit edgy and tipsy. Then something terrible happens that effectively splits their lives into before barbeque and after barbeque.
In theory these are all good ingredients for another cracking Liane Moriarty novel. The problem is that, after the book’s opening chapter entices you to find out what really happened, it draws out the reveal for about 300 pages that jump between the day of the barbeque and the present day, as well as different character perspectives. Sometimes taunting the reader by withholding the information works like a treat, however I’m afraid that Moriarty’s approach to suspense here backfired. The big flaw is that the story can’t take proper shape until you know what happened at the barbeque, so there’s too little sense of momentum and too much extraneous mundane fluff and filler that nearly killed my interest in the whole thing. When it’s finally revealed the shocking incident predictably can’t live up to the built-up expectations; you feel a bit like a heartless monster for being underwhelmed and expecting something way more tragic.
That said, a lot of what Moriarty usually does well can also be found in this book. Her writing is effortlessly readable and she has a real knack for portraying flawed yet sympathetic characters with specific touches and sharp observations that make them feel realistic, and exploring their complicated relationships and hidden inner lives. With this novel, she also aims to examine different facets of guilt and the way it drives us: the resentment and estrangement it breeds, the weight of expectations, the regret for things we did and things we didn’t do. There are some very entertaining side characters and secondary stories with their own last-minute twists that actually do feel shocking and surprising.
The book does pick up once the incident is finally out of the bag, and the last two hundred pages made me forget some of the frustration I felt with the agonisingly slow build-up. It’s just a shame that Moriarty couldn’t rein herself in and resist the urge to drag out the mystery when it wasn’t really necessary.