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Big Little Lies

Review

Big Little Lies

This novel is a multi-tasker. Like the overscheduled mothers whose lives it depicts so freshly, it juggles wry humor with grave issues (domestic violence, bullying) and throws in a mystery to boot. Someone has died on Trivia Night at the Pirriwee Public School (a costume-party-cum-competition involving tipsy parents dressed up as Elvis and Audrey Hepburn), and Liane Moriarty --- without saying who, of course --- backtracks six months to fill us in on how the trouble started. Seventy-six (short) chapters later, all is revealed.

Not that I’m telling.

As the title suggests, BIG LITTLE LIES is about the churning beneath the surface: Everybody in Pirriwee has something to hide. Forty-year-old Madeline, despite her happy second marriage to Ed, tries to suppress her rage at first husband Nathan, who has moved to the same town with his new wife, the irritatingly p.c. Bonnie. Their daughter, five-year-old Skye (“There should be a law against ex-husbands procreating”), is in the same class as Madeline’s daughter, Chloe. Nathan deserted Madeline when their daughter Abigail, 14, was born; now, he was “pretending to be a good man, and everyone was falling for it.” Not only that, Abigail has decided it would be “spiritually” better for her to live with him and Bonnie instead of her mother (here is Madeline, mourning the evenings when they used to watch “America’s Next Top Model”together: “Bonnie was giving Abigail a social conscience, while Madeline was just encouraging poor body image”). 

"BIG LITTLE LIES has suspense to spare, and it kept me guessing until the end. It’s a warm-hearted, juicy novel that will resonate not only with frazzled parents, but also with all the women in the world --- too many --- who are victims of violence and don’t or can’t stick up for themselves."

More secrets lurk behind the makeup-free face of Jane, a single mother, 24, who has just moved into town with her son, Ziggy. There’s no husband in the picture; she got pregnant after a one-night stand, she confesses to her new friends in Pirriwee. But the truth, it turns out, is far crueler than a single episode of casual sex. Worse still, her somewhat dreamy son is accused of bullying a little girl in his kindergarten class --- the bright, sensitive daughter of Renata, a full-of-herself financial analyst --- and a petition is being circulated among the parents to have Ziggy expelled.

Celeste, the third of Moriarty’s protagonists, is living the saddest lie of all. Rich, beautiful, with twin boys and an apparently ideal husband, she is nonetheless on the verge of walking out. It takes Moriarty a few chapters to peel away the facade and show us why Celeste is so desperate to escape her marriage, and quite a few more for her and Jane to come to terms with their victimization, past and present, and begin to reclaim their lives.

Jane and Celeste’s stories of abuse are painful, and the grown-up violations they’ve suffered find an echo in the child bullying crisis at Pirriwee Public and, on a broader political canvas, in the human-rights project Abigail undertakes to expose the plight of girls forced into marriage (her website is well-intentioned but surreal, and might cause readers with teenage daughters to slap parental controls on the Internet with all possible speed).

This sounds awfully serious, I realize, but BIG LITTLE LIES really isn’t a downer. Although Moriarty’s tale has its dark side, she remains a good-time author who paints a memorable picture of parental foibles and female solidarity.

Madeline, the most relatable narrator of the three, is also the character with the smartest, most entertaining voice. She adores her children but doesn’t idealize them (“Chloe currently trod a very fine line between adorable and obnoxious”); she wrestles with PMS and aging; and she has a rather jaded view of the other parents, whether high-powered working moms (she herself has a low-powered part-time marketing position) or obsessive stay-at-homes. It is she who gives the novel its witty edge; it is, among other things, a satirical look at a kindergarten parent’s life: the petty battles and vendettas, cliques and competition. “[S]chool politics at Pirriwee Public [is] a minefield, girls,” she tells Jane and Celeste, and she’s not kidding. (It turns out that Moriarty has a four-year-old and a six-year-old, so she knows what she’s writing about.)

My one gripe is that Moriarty has chosen to beef up the principal narrative voices with a confusing series of gossipy quotes from other characters --- parents, teachers, detectives --- as they speculate about what really occurred during Trivia Night. Moriarty says in an interview that this “Greek Chorus” of witnesses was not in her original plan for the novel; I think that’s why it seems an annoying afterthought that does not, to my mind, add an extra dimension to the mystery.

Fortunately, BIG LITTLE LIES has suspense to spare, and it kept me guessing until the end. It’s a warm-hearted, juicy novel that will resonate not only with frazzled parents, but also with all the women in the world --- too many --- who are victims of violence and don’t or can’t stick up for themselves.

Lug this 460-page book to the beach by all means (the weight is worth it, or maybe you have an eReader?), but make sure somebody else is looking out for your five-year-old. Trust me, you won’t want to raise your eyes from the page.

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on August 1, 2014

Big Little Lies
by Liane Moriarty

  • Publication Date: July 29, 2014
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
  • ISBN-10: 0399167064
  • ISBN-13: 9780399167065