by Liane Moriarty, 2014
You know, as much as I complain about having read popular books because they tend to end up being not so great, every once in awhile I read an immensely popular book, simply for the fact that it’s popular, and I’m rewarded. Well, in this case it’s more that I wanted to watch the HBO adaptation with Alexander Skarsgard, but hey, the motive isn’t important. What’s important is that I expected to read a trashy, poorly written book with a predictable plot and instead found a captivating mystery with sharp commentary on parenthood and suburban life. I guess you can be popular and smart after all.
The plot of Big Little Lies is pretty standard. On the evening of a school trivia night, one of the parents comes up dead. Whodunit and how is revealed as we travel several months into the past and learn about all the events that take place, leading to our dramatic conclusion. In the process we meet three women – single mother Jane, remarried mother Madeline, and Celeste, the beautiful woman with the seemingly perfect marriage. All three have children starting kindergarten that year, and although their lives seems disparate, they become quick friends.
What I liked most about the book is that Moriarty allows us to see how insidious and unproductive gossip can be. We’re treated to a number of secondary characters’ thoughts as they speak about the murder, each one revelling in what is, essentially, none of their business. Much fuss is made over the fact that Jane almost unknowingly brought her son to school with lice and that Madeline jokingly started an erotic book club. This seems like no more than a nuisance, but this sort of gossiping and speculation is far from harmless when turned on the children. It seems that one young girl is being bullied by another classmate and when she points out Jane’s son Ziggy as the perpetrator of one act, the parents all but start a witch hunt to get him removed from the school, no matter how much he maintains his own innocence or how little proof anyone has of his involvement.
To say more would be to reveal too much, but I have to commend Moriarty on how well she intertwines social issues with this suspenseful plot. Bullying, domestic violence, sexual violence, single motherhood, PTSD, genetic inheritance…it’s all out on the table here as we learn exactly what secrets these women are keeping. The biggest takeaway from all of this hullabaloo is pretty powerful: you often never truly know a person and, until you do, you can never judge how they live their lives.