Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
My book club read this novel for our May meeting and I loved it. I never watched (and won’t watch) the HBO series based on the book, and I’m glad I didn’t. I formed a very clear picture of each character in my mind, and I wouldn’t want that to be distorted by HBO’s casting choices.
This is not a mystery, a thriller, a crime novel, or domestic suspense, but there are elements of all those subgenres. I would call it a book of suspense. You know there’s a dead body, but you don’t know who it is until the very end. Likewise, you know one of the characters is the killer, but you don’t find out that person’s identity until the end, either.
Big Little Lies tells the story of a group of kindergarten moms: how they feel about their spouses, themselves, each other, and of course, their kids. And not just how they feel about everyone else, but how they treat everyone else. There’s bullying going on in the school, and it mirrors the bullying going on among the parents—both men and women. Of course, (most of) the adult bullies are far more subtle than the kids, but their digs and barbs cut as deep as any physical wound. A particularly nasty petition drawn up by some of the parents circulates, and battle lines are drawn based on who signs and who doesn’t.
As the story unfolds, it is clear that something sinister has taken place at the school’s Trivia Night. The action in the story starts six months before the Trivia Night, and the suspense ratchets up as the clock ticks down to the night in question.
The three main characters in the book are Madeline, Jane, and Celeste. They form a friendship from an early chapter in the book and they couldn’t be more different. Madeline is fiesty and not afraid to give voice to her thoughts. Jane is the young mom, a newcomer to town. She’s quiet and hangs onto a deep-seated feeling of shame over a life-changing event that took place several years before the book starts. Celeste is beautiful and generous with her friendship and her money, but is hiding an ugly secret.
There are numerous secondary characters, all of whom are important to the story. In fact, readers learn a great deal about the main characters from their interactions with the secondary characters. There is even a cast of tertiary characters, and these are the ones who share their thoughts and opinions about the plot of the book. They’re fascinating and they reveal a lot about human nature.
The novel is an attention-getting and disturbing exploration of domestic violence, the abuse of women, bullying, the age-old and often-unspoken tug-of-war between working moms and stay-at-home moms, and the innermost thoughts of a group of mothers bound together by tragedy, circumstance, and the place they call home. It’s both easy and hard to read: easy in the sense that the book is written in plain language that leaves little room for doubt; hard in the sense that it addresses topics that are scary and difficult to discuss.
The author does an incredible job showing the waffling, back-and-forth thoughts that run through the mind of the abused wife in the book, and that serves as a tacit and sad-but-common explanation of some of the reasons behind Why Women Stay.
I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I will say that I was satisfied by it. I didn’t guess the person who died until just before the reader sees it happen, and I certainly did not guess the perpetrator.
In sum, this is a book about human behavior. Every society, every community, every school, has parents and kids like the ones in the story. There are good people and reprehensible ones (sometimes they’re the same person). It is a story of hope and hanging on.
I would recommend the book to anyone who likes psychological or domestic suspense with sharp, often witty, dialogue. If you have read it or watched the HBO show based on it, please let me know what you thought of it.