The back cover and buzz around Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies makes it sound fluffy and beachy, so I brought it to the beach. Fluff or not, it’s tremendously funny and impossible to put down (I was up until 3am to finish). It begins with a murder, but the victim/motive/means are obscured from the reader. The story rewinds six months to pick apart the petty spats, squabbles, and gossip that led to the mysterious death. Though the story cycles through multiple perspectives, it’s driven by newcomer Jane Chapman and her son Ziggy. At kindergarten orientation, Ziggy is accused of bruising Amabella’s [sic]* neck and many mothers forbid their children from playing with him. Jane is unshakeable in her belief of Ziggy’s innocence and her two new friends, Madeline and Celeste, take her side as well. While Jane frets over Ziggy’s prospects, Madeline is coping with an increasingly distant teen daughter, and Celeste is hiding the evidence of her husband’s abuse.
Despite the heavy topics at hand (bullying and domestic violence), Big Little Lies is funny. I laughed out loud throughout even though the humor shrinks to one-liners once the book takes a few dark turns. Big Little Lies subtly mocks the modern trend of overly serious parenting with a group of women who can’t resist snarking at each other on their children’s behalf. Each section or chapter is closed with a group of quotations/comments that functions like an old-timey Greek chorus:
Mrs. Lipmann: It’s a tragedy, and deeply regrettable, and we’re all trying to move forward. I have no further comment.
Carol: I blame the Erotic Book Club. But that’s just me.
Jonathan: There was nothing erotic about the Erotic Book Club, I’ll tell you that for free.
Jackie: You know what? I see this as a feminist issue.
Harper: Who said it was a feminist issue? What the heck? I’ll tell you what started it: the incident at the kindergarten orientation day. (6)
The best part of the chorus is the way it locks the commenters into their roles with their pet issues. Instead of flattening them out, this repetition makes them seem absurdly focussed which fits with their characters:
“Oh. Renata. Renata is in one of those finance jobs—equities or, I don’t know, stock options? Is that a thing? Or maybe she’s an analyst. I think that’s it. She analyzes stuff. Every time I ask her to explain her job, I forget to listen. Her children are geniuses too. Obviously. … Renata doesn’t have time to help at the school. She has board meetings to attend. Whenever you talk to her she’s just been to a board meeting, or she’s on her way back from a board meeting. I mean, how often do these boards have to meet?” (35)
Which means, of course, that Renata’s role in the chorus is to periodically mention her board meetings with subtle disparagements of the other women.
Despite Madeline’s tone (which she admits is bitchy), she’s deeply committed to Jane and Celeste and, by extension, to their children. The group is tight-knit and they soon build a support structure to discuss/manage their problems and insecurities. Sadly, though, no one suspects Celeste’s unhappiness because her “perfect” life is incompatible with their notions of what an abusive relationship looks like. Celeste’s POV sections tackle the issue from all sides: the guilt, concern for her children, justifications to stay, reasons to leave, and the suspicion that she doesn’t deserve special help/resources because there are so many women who have it worse. And, of course, she loves her husband.
There are a few moments when the book devolves into an anti-violence PSA, but not at the expense of the story. I don’t resent PSAs, but it’s disappointing to watch an author make their point the hard way—by creating compelling characters and situations—only to hit the reader over the head by stuffing their spiel into a character’s mouth. At that point, why write a story? Why not just write some pamphlets to distribute around town?
What impressed me most about Big Little Lies is that the nagging concerns I had while reading were all answered/fixed by the end. Every now and then I’d think: “Ugh, I hate how Moriarty is over-simplifying X” and then she’d come back later and set it right. (As a Sherlock Holmes fan, the previous sentence looks very strange to me.)
Big Little Lies is also a passable mystery for all its social commentary. There are many questions raised throughout which raise the tension to a fever-pitch: Who was killed? Why? Which of the 100 quibbles was the instigating factor? Did Ziggy hurt Amabella? What’s up with Jane’s secretive past?
Overall: 4.7 Tremendously entertaining and well-paced. The funny parts are hilarious while the serious bits are treated with appropriate weight. The shifts are well-done and I loved the chorus sprinkled throughout.
Translation: Read it!
*”That’s Amabella, by the way, not Annabella. It’s French. We didn’t make it up.” (42)