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Review: Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Nine Perfect Strangers 
Liane Moriarty
Pan Macmillan AUS
2018, 493p
Personal purchased copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

The ten-day retreat at boutique health-and-wellness resort Tranquillum House promises healing and transformation. Nine stressed city dwellers are keen to drop their literal and mental baggage and absorb the blissful meditative ambience while enjoying their hot stone massages. They are all on a path to a better way of living. Or at least a better waistline . . .

Watching over them is the resort’s director, a woman on a mission to reinvigorate these tired bodies and minds. But to what lengths will she go to achieve her goal?

These nine perfect strangers have no idea what’s about to hit them.

This review is probably going to be a bit of a mess.

Firstly, I haven’t been able to read much lately. Before I read Nine Perfect Strangers yesterday, the last book I managed to read was back on the 26th September, because for I kept getting savage headaches whenever I was trying, be it on my iPad or in physical form. I’d read the last few September books through thumping headaches and then took a few days off to try and get them to go away. I remembered I was probably a little while overdue for an eye exam and so I went to get my eyes checked out. Turns out, I do need new glasses and my eyes were having a lot of trouble focusing on anything up close, which makes me concentrate harder….which causes headaches. So. I got to go through the whole process of picking new frames and all that fun stuff. I got glasses when I was 11 because I couldn’t see the board in school anymore but weirdly, during this eye exam, one of my eyes’ distance vision had actually improved.

A lot of people have been urging me to read this and although I have a tonne of October books I should be getting to, I picked it up yesterday on a whim. I didn’t plan to read the whole thing – it’s almost 500p and I wasn’t sure I would get through it but turns out, I did. It was….not what I expected.

Firstly, the pacing is quite slow for probably at least the first third of the book. You get a few different view points cycling back and forth, mostly Frances, a 50-something romance writer who has just had her latest book rejected. She’s twice divorced and has just been the victim of a brutal ‘break up’ which is not what it seems. She’s on her way to a 10 day retreat in country New South Wales and she’s having a lot of thoughts and what seems like some severe issues of hypochondria. Then eventually we get introduced to the others who are going to be on the same retreat as Frances – the Marconi family (Dad Napoleon, Mum Heather and daughter Zoe), married young couple Ben and Jess, grumpy Tony, beautifully handsome Lars and tired mother Carmel. They’re all looking for something at the retreat – to lose weight, to distract themselves, to gain clarity, to get some counselling, to learn new healthy habits. What they get is…..not what they bargained for. A bit like me with this book.

Firstly, the characterisation is amazing here. Most of them are rich, fully realised and come with an array of issues and baggage that’s believable and written really well. Liane Moriarty does relationships and entanglements so well, she does baggage and complicated emotion so well. I really enjoyed learning about each and every one of them but I had a really special liking for the Marconi family. Why they are there at first is a bit of a mystery and with each reveal their story gets more heartbreaking. It’s done so well and there’s such elements of grief and frustrating and anger and rage. They’re a tight family but they’re also broken. I thought Ben and Jessica were really much more than they were initially presented to be – Jessica an instagram wannabe who had sculpted her looks, unaware of the only person that didn’t find it an improvement was her own husband. And Ben, obsessed with his car always going on about the damn car, it’s just a car Ben (ok it’s a very expensive car but still). But the further I got into it, the more I appreciated their story as well and the stresses of what had changed their lives. Lars seems shallow at first but develops hidden depths (his choice of career) and Tony evolves as well. Probably Carmel is the character I felt got the least amount of attention and grew the least during the stay and her story was the least interesting to me.

But for me, this book escalates into the complete weird and I have issues with it, because I don’t think it fully dealt with the consequences of its own storyline. It’s very difficult to talk about without spoiling also, but I felt as though there was this big “thing” that happens and everyone is furious and then they are just…not. And there’s a lot of glossed over stuff at the end which really minimises the invasive exploitation of people’s trust. I also found a lot of the scenes during this portion of the book quite heavy handed – Frances’ in particular! Perhaps because she’s a romance author and Liane Moriarty is an author, it just seemed like it was a lot of unloading on the industry and it didn’t feel at all subtle. There were some funny moments but a lot of it I just read feeling a bit awkward, like I’d walked into the middle of someone’s private rant. I also have no way of knowing if any of these experiences the characters go through are realistic (and I’m not going to find out, because that’s just not something I’m interested in) but they all seemed so pointed. I was really quite annoyed at the way some of the characters were quite rightfully outraged at the abuse of their trust but then it just…..faded into nothing? I mean it probably became obvious that there were some serious issues going on with the person controlling everything behind the scenes but it just came off a bit clunky for me, like it was okay in the end because they magically dealt with their issues.

As a conversation piece? This book is brilliant. There’s so much to talk about – and I’ve had two good conversations about it already. It’s great for book clubs, great for people who really enjoy picking a book to pieces (and I don’t mean that in a negative way, in a way that analyses everything that happens in great detail) and those who like to mull over everything and savour it. Because Liane Moriarty is clever – really clever. She’s great with characters, she’s great at drawing you into a story. There’s a reason I read this in an afternoon, even with my nitpicky issues with some of it. Because even though it starts a bit slowly, there’s a period of investment in these characters (particularly the Marconis for me, that story is utter perfection). But I didn’t care about all of them and at times I found Frances, who seems to be the ‘main’ one, even though there are numerous characters who all narrate, quite tiring. I feel as though the book really nailed the whole retreat thing but then just took it that step further and it was weird, but not……without some grounding in possibility. Dangerous as all heck though. I wasn’t overly sure about the character of Masha in the end. I felt as though that downward spiral might’ve been a bit rapid but that’s just me. It felt like the first part of the book was, as I said, very slow, but then the end of the book had a disjointed and rushed feeling which may have been deliberate, to emphasise the ordeal the characters were going through. I kind of think that a few characters could’ve probably been trimmed in order to spend more time on the ones remaining – although yes, I know she does characters well, there were a few that probably could’ve vanished from the narrative and it honestly wouldn’t have made any difference to the story. And it would’ve given more time to focus on other characters, including the one that I think did need it, which was Masha.

But….it’s not my favourite book from Liane Moriarty. It might not even be in my top 3. And that’s interesting because I feel there are so many authors out there where you love each new book even more than the previous. And this isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the reading experience – I did, but it was a very up and down experience. There were times when my attention wandered a bit early on, there were times later in the piece where I was invested but the weirdness of the way the story and I ended up with more questions than answers at times, and a vague sense of dissatisfaction about some of the resolution. However I’ve no doubt that it’ll be made into a TV show or a movie and it’ll probably be very good – it is a story that might be well suited to a visual depiction. I find it a bit hard to rate it, because I didn’t love it. Didn’t dislike it. Read it really quickly but not super intensely…..however the thing that I think tips it for me is that it’s a book you can discuss endlessly. There honestly is so much to talk about and pore over and it’s one of the things I enjoy most about reading. So.

7/10

Book #169 of 2018

 

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Review: Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty

Big Little LiesBig Little Lies
Liane Moriarty
Amy Einhorn Books (Penguin Group)
2014, 458p
Read from my local library

Pirriwee Public School is the only primary school in Pirrawee, a small beachside town in Sydney. Because of that, there’s an array of different families putting their students into school there and mixing at the school gate.

Madeline has done it all before – firstly as single mother with her now teenage daughter and then two years ago with Fred. Chloe is her last and Madeline is an old hand at the school routine and the mothers that congregate at the yard. Even though she’s now married again, she’s never forgiven her ex-husband for walking out on her when their daughter was just weeks old. Now Nathan lives in the same suburb as her with his new wife and their daughter is starting school with Chloe. To top it off, their teenage daughter seems to be preferring life at Nathan’s and bonding with Bonnie, Nathan’s wife. Madeline isn’t sure how to cope with this.

To everyone else, Celeste seems perfect. Married to the handsome, rich Perry who dotes on her, Celeste has a kind of beauty that stops people utterly in their tracks. She has twins and she’s always late and perpetually a bit flustered but everyone has a flaw. Now the twins are in school, Celeste will clearly be courted by all the mothers, keen to get in with her and her perfect life. But perfection comes at a price and no one has any idea what price Celeste is privately paying.

Jane is new and a young, single mother. Young enough to raise eyebrows and be mistaken for the nanny. When Jane’s son is accused of bullying a little girl in the kindergarten class, it sets in motion a chain of events that lead to a death. Madeline takes Jane under her wing, defending her passionately and soon it’s a split between the mothers – you’re either team one side or team the other.

I’ve heard such amazing things about this book and I’ve been hearing them for so long and I have finally got around to reading it! I’ve read most of Liane Moriarty’s previous books and I feel as though she gets better with each book and this book definitely proves that. For me, this is her best work yet and I loved it. I read it in just over three hours – could not put it down.

My eldest child started school this year so I was pretty interested in something that tackles the politics at the school gate. So far I’ve been pretty lucky in some ways. My son attended a different kinder to a lot of the other children so we didn’t know many other parents but through him making friends, we’ve met and made some friends ourselves. But that’s not to say that we haven’t witnessed some of the drama, changing friendships and one-upping that goes on. A lot of people keep to themselves though, we have a very varied mix of cultures at our school, something that does seem missing from this particular story. Given the book’s setting it’s probably unsurprising. The primary school in the book is the only one in a small coastal Sydney suburb (maybe the northern beaches? north shore? type area?) and therefore, you do get a strong economic spread. Celeste and her husband Perry are incredibly wealthy and there are other families too, with high flying career-oriented parents. At the other end of the scale is Madeline, comfortable with her husband Ed and Jane, a young single mother who works from home to pay the bills.

At the orientation day, one of the children is hurt and accuses another and basically, that’s the incident that sets in motion most of the rest of the book. The mother of the child that was hurt begins to wage a war and when school begins and it looks like the incidents are continuing, the campaign gets nastier. A petition is started, to get the child accused removed from the school. Bullying is a very hot topic at the moment, and rightfully so. It seems to get worse and worse each year and the culprits are getting younger and younger. And when it’s your child that’s getting picked on, it can be very difficult to keep a cool head. And I think it can be just as bad for the parent/s of the child accused of doing the hurting, or bullying. At this stage in their lives, they’re just 5 years old, barely past being babies. How do you deal with it in a meaningful way at such a young age? The irony is in that trying to protect their children, many of the mothers set a bad example for them, excluding Jane, the parent of the child accused and her son Ziggy as well, from birthday parties, etc.

There’s almost too much to talk about here, the issue of domestic violence and how it can happen to anyone, dealing with blended families, especially when your ex and his new wife live in the same small suburb. Being a single mother, possibly the only single mother in the class, etc. It’s a blistering look at the social construct and hierarchy of the school mother pyramid – I particularly liked the comment about the “Blonde Bobs”. There are a few Blonde Bobs at my son’s school as well! But what I really liked about this book was that it kept surprising me. There was lots I didn’t see coming and with each reveal, the story just went up a notch in terms of brilliance. I loved the way it was told, beginning in the present and going back to the orientation and then at various intervals in the school year before the Trivia Night where the major event happens. I loved the snippets of information from the mothers/fathers who were more minor characters in the book. It’s such a well written story, one that I think so many people can relate to, whether it be about taking your child to school for the first time or connecting to one of the more serious issues that was being explored here.

Fabulous.

9/10

Book #243 of 2014

AWWW2014

Big Little Lies is book #88 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

 

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The Hypnotist’s Love Story – Liane Moriarty

The Hypnotist’s Love Story
Liane Moriarty
Pan MacMillan AU
2011, 456p
Read from my local library

Ellen O’Farrell is a hypnotherapist who helps her various clients deal with things like losing weight, quitting smoking, dealing with a fear of public speaking. She’s had several long-term relationships but they’ve all petered out and when she meets Patrick, Ellen feels the flutters of what might be. She likes him, and just when things are about to get a bit more serious, Patrick confesses that he has something to tell her.

As Ellen’s mind races with all the things he could possibly be going to tell her, she doesn’t even get close to the truth. Patrick has a stalker, a woman named Saskia who he used to date (and live with). They broke up three years ago and ever since Saskia has been following Patrick, writing him letters, sending him text messages. In fact she was at the very restaurant they have this conversation at, watching from a corner. She’s gone by the time Ellen starts to look for her but the fact of the matter is, she’s always there, somewhere. Watching, noticing, leaving messages.

As someone who studies and helps with human behaviour, Ellen isn’t frightened by this. Instead, she’s sort of interested. Fascinated, actually. Saskia has a good job, she’s smart, she isn’t exactly what someone would think would be the stereotypical woman to do this. Ellen thinks she’d love to meet her, maybe ask her why she does this to Patrick, help her understand that it isn’t right and move on. But talk of Saskia only tends to make Patrick frustrated and furious so she keeps these views to herself, all the while secretly almost enjoying the drama of dating a man who has a stalker looking out for her everywhere and thinking about meeting her.

What Ellen doesn’t know is that she’s already met Saskia. In fact, she’s been treating her for several sessions now, with Saskia using a different name. Ellen has no clue that Saskia has made contact in this way and by the time she does figure it out, Saskia has witnessed a very personal moment that drives her over the edge and has her crossing the last line, resulting in some serious consequences.

I’ve read a previous book of Liane Moriarty’s, What Alice Forgot and I also own her two prior to that. When this one was released I thought it sounded a bit quirky, but fun. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did! It sucked me right in and I read it in an afternoon on a day where the temperature soared to 40 degrees (104 for you Fahrenheit people) and the only thing to do was flake out on the couch.

The novel alternates points of view, between Ellen and Saskia in a move that I think is brilliant. Although there’s never any doubt that what Saskia is doing is horribly wrong (and she knows this, but cannot stop), Moriarty somehow manages to make Saskia seem sympathetic, a pitiable character rather than a reviled one. As Patrick is predictably frustrated and rendered helpless by Saskia’s harassment, with the novel touching expertly on what it must be like to be a man being followed by a woman and trying to get people such as the police, to take you seriously, he doesn’t talk about the circumstances involving his relationship and eventual break up with Saskia. It’s up to Saskia to fill the readers in on the blanks and it is the story Liane Moriarty has chosen, and the touching way she tells it that lends the reader’s understanding to why Saskia might be compelled to do this, and unable to stop herself from doing it. In doing this, the slightest shadow of doubt hangs over Patrick as a character throughout most of the book – what did he do to her to make her act this way? Why won’t he talk about it? After three years, why hasn’t he sought an AVO? There are questions that provoke the reader to think, that sway their mind back and forth, and that adds a glorious depth to both Saskia and Patrick and also their story line.

The Hynotist’s Love Story was full of surprises. Although the tone isn’t dark, or depressing, it’s not exactly light and fluffy either and there are some real issues being explored here, apart from just Saskia’s stalking. Patrick was a widower with a very young son when he met Saskia and Saskia basically raised him, stepping in as his stepmother (for want of a better term) during the length of their relationship, which included a lengthy time of living together. When it ended, Saskia found herself totally removed from the little boy’s life which begs the question – did Patrick have a right to do this? Did Saskia deserve some access to the child after they split, given she fulfilled the role of main caretaker for a big period in his life? While this isn’t an excuse for Saskia’s behaviour it certainly does help the reader sympathize with her and understand her and feel for her and how she must have felt. Saskia is more than just the ex-girlfriend that can’t let go. She’s grieving the loss of much more than just a relationship.

The Hypnotist’s Love Story was one of those lovely surprises sort of like a chocolate with an unexpected filling inside. You think you’re just getting one thing but you end up getting so much more! It was so much more than just a novel about Ellen and her hypnotherapy, it touched on so many relationships – romantic, parental, varying friendships and all were drawn with a real deft skill.

A really enjoyable way to kick off reading for 2012!

8/10

Book #1 of 2012

The Hypnotist’s Love Story is the first novel completed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. It’s set in Sydney (Ellen lives on the Northern Beaches) but the setting doesn’t particularly contribute to the story. You can find out more about Liane Moriarty by visiting her website.

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What Alice Forgot – Liane Moriarty

My recent impulse buy, based on the blurb on the back cover. I picked it up on Saturday and was done on Sunday. It was a really engrossing read. The book opens with Alice coming to after taking a fall in her gym and knocking herself out. She’s confused, thinking of cream cheese (she’s not sure why) and whether or not she should be eating it while she’s pregnant. When she opens her eyes, she’s surprised to find the face of her friend standing over her, looking older than she remembers. She’s also skinny – far skinnier than she remembers.

Alice is taken to hospital where she discovers that it’s not 1998, like she thinks it is. It’s actually 2008 and she’s not pregnant anymore. She’s the mother of three children, none of which she remembers anything about at all. She’s also separated from her husband Nick and going through a very ugly divorce and custody battle. Also, it seems that she’s no longer close to her sister Elisabeth.

She can’t understand why her and Nick would’ve split up. Ten years ago, in the real 1998, there was nothing they couldn’t have worked through. She is baffled by her 2008 gym-junkie self, her designer clothes, her make up, her groomed looks. She discovers she’s one of those mothers that helps out at the school, runs charity events and co-ordinates Kindergarten Cocktail Nights. And just who is this mysterious ‘Gina’ that everyone refuses to talk about, all sidelong glances with each other and changing the subject.

It’s hard to review this book without giving stuff away. What I liked about it was the exploration of change – how Alice woke up thinking she was still one person, to find out that she was entirely another. How she remembered her loving husband, only to be faced with a barrage of abuse delivered in an icy tone down the phone. How she remembers her mother as a woman who was so introverted she could barely step outside, who now teaches salsa dancing. No one is as she remembers them – especially herself. It’s a journey of finding out what happened during those 10 missing years, of remembering the moments that shaped the person she has become. She wants to try again with Nick, as she remembers only loving him, and none of the bitterness that is becoming evident of the norm in 2008. Nick, it seems, is skeptical, claiming that once she remembers, she’ll regret wanting to reconcile. But he agrees and at that moment, it seems like he has never really wanted the separation. Their reunion is complicated slightly by the fact that 2008 Alice has a boyfriend, the principal of her children’s school, Dominic.

Only one thing really detracted from my enjoyment of the book and that was the ending. I’m not a fan of a book that ends when X happens and then skips forward 10 or so years into the future and goes so here’s what happened in the 10 years we skipped, in less than a paragraph, but also, explaining nothing. I’m nosy, so I don’t like having a decade, or whatever the skipped number of years was, wrapped up so vaguely and with nothing really explained. That was my only real complaint about the book.

Other than that I found the characters enjoyable and likable. One of the things I found most amusing was Alice’s complete lack of idea of how to mother her children, who were school age. Having only remembered being pregnant, she has no idea what she allows them to do, what their routines are, what type of mother she has become. It made me think of how I would cope if I suddenly woke up and lost 10 years of my life and thought I was 18 again. How would I go about day-to-day life with my toddler with no knowledge of his routine? To not remember having given birth to him, brought him home, seen his first smile, his first attempt at crawling, his first steps. That was a disturbing feeling.

A pretty enjoyable read overall, just wish the ending was a bit more neatly and tightly done.

7/10

(Book #41 of my 50 Book Challenge)

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