Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty

also: The Lay of the Land, Richard Ford

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Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (2014) is a work of popular fiction about a clique of kindergarten mothers, or competing cliques really, at Pirriwee primary school, a fictitious Sydney beachside suburb. We are told at the beginning that someone has died at a school trivia night, but not who or by whose hand, and then we go back to the beginning of the school year and by degrees work our way forwards to the trivia night and the denoument. And as an aside, don’t check out the Wikipedia entry for this book if you wish to be surprised by the ending.

I listened to Big Little Lies recently in the truck and it was an easy way to pass the time, and more than that, under a pleasant surface Moriarty deals with issues with a bit of bite – date rape, domestic abuse, adultery, bullying – as well as the usual family conflicts and an amusing romance.

Before Big Little Lies I was listening to an American, old guy novel, Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land (2006), 23 hours of prostate problems and failed second marriages, as I ran to and from a job at Karalundi, an Aboriginal “community” (actually a Seventh Day Adventist mission/school with a name change) 800 km north of Perth, and the third time it’s been mentioned in these pages in the last couple of months. I had to sit at Karalundi for a day waiting for my last trailer to be empty. It’s a lovely place, green, with plenty of underground water, and neat pressed earth buildings, but there’s no community living there, just mission staff and Aboriginal students. The (white) woman running the cafe and caravan park gave me the keys to the museum – an old school building I think with three rooms of photographs. As far as I can tell, the mission closed in 1974 but reopened shortly after as a church school carrying on as before but nominally controlled by locals, presumably from Meekatharra and Wiluna.

I’ve said before I don’t read old guy books – although Rebus and Cliff Hardy and so on have their share of old guy musings – and I don’t know Richard Ford, but I was impressed by The Lay of the Land which notionally deals with three ordinary working days in the life of Frank Bascombe, fifty five, a realtor in coastal Sea-Clift NJ, but is really a stream of consciousness as Bascombe deals with recently diagnosed prostate cancer, preparations for Thanksgiving, a missing second wife who has gone back, temporarily at least, to her first husband, theoretically adult children, a surprising offer from his first wife and, as a committed Democrat, awaits the result of the court case (remember hanging chads in Florida) which determined the result of the 2000 Presidential election; all matters that kept me thinking and agreeing as I listened.

As well as I can tell from the covers, I attempt to vary my listening, so from the male American voice of The Lay of the Land it was a natural jump to the female Australian voice of Big Little Lies. I hadn’t heard of Moriarty either but apparently this is her second or third international best seller with a big budget movie underway.

The story, briefly, is that Jane, a 24 yo single mother moves to Pirriwee with her 5 yo son Ziggy, becomes friends with Madelaine who has a 5 yo (Chloe) and a 7 yo with her second husband and a 14 yo, Abigail by her previous marriage to Nathan who is now married to Bonnie and they have a 5 yo of their own. And Madelaine, and hence Jane, is friends with the beautiful Celeste, married to very well off merchant banker Perry, and they have 5 yo twins, Max and Josh; and all these 5 yo’s are starting in kinder year at Pirriwee. There are others, most amusingly the “blonde bobs”, the power mothers with identical (Julie Bishop) hairstyles who run the school, but you get the picture. On the first day, Ziggy is accused of bullying and it takes most of the novel to lay this accusation to rest. Meanwhile Jane gradually reveals to Madelaine and Celeste details of the date rape that led to Ziggy’s conception; Abigail breaks Madeline’s heart by going to live with her father and Bonnie; Celeste is the victim of ongoing violence by Perry; and Jane makes friends with the ‘gay’ owner of the local coffee shop.

The narrative pov switches between Jane, Madelaine and Celeste but at the end of each section there are also tantalising excerpts from witness statements (following the trivia night ‘murder’) which provides an interesting, multifaceted view of the action, especially when compared with the single, linear (male) viewpoint of The Lay of the Land.

The big similarity of the two books however is their focus on privileged, white, middle class suburban life. Within Big Little Lies there is a range of incomes, but only from middling to high, as you might expect in a Sydney beachside suburb, and no ethnic diversity at all. The Lay of the Land is similarly situated but interestingly, to an Australian at least, the lower classes are evident by their colour – Latino servants, female African American cooks and so on, and Ford seems to me to refer to them quite disparagingly.

As I said, the authors of both books are unknown to me, but not, according to Google, to millions of readers world-wide, and The Lay of the Land at least seems to have attracted some pretty high powered reviews. If you have the time, I recommend them both.

 

Karalundi
Karalundi Museum

Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies, Penguin, 2014. Audio version: Bolinda Audio, 2014, read by Caroline Lee

Richard Ford, The Lay of the Land, 2006. Audio version: AudioGO, 2012, read by Peter Marinker

Review of The Lay of the Land in The Independent (here) and from Kate W at booksaremy favouriteand best (here) with cocktail recipe.

Previous mentions of Karalundi (here and here). More photos facebook Karalundi album

 

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14 thoughts on “Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty

  1. I have heard of both these authors, and have read one Richard Ford – Independence Day, which is the second in the series of which this book is the third. I rather enjoyed it, but partly because I’ve lived in the US and so could quite get into the milieu. (We did a bit of driving last week, and started an audiobook, Cold Sassy Tree. I might write that up one day, if we ever manage to finish it!

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    • The Independent says Ford’s depiction of suburban life is ‘suffused with quiet melancholy’. I think his writing is pretty good but I’m not sure I could handle another 20 hours of being depressed!

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      • Haha, fair enough Bill. His writing is pretty good, and I’d read another if, say, my reading group chose it, but otherwise I have other books/writers that are higher priority. Nonetheless, I’m very glad to have read it.

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      • I looked up Cold Sassy Tree, I think I might prefer Richard Ford! The wiki synopsis ignores race relations so I’ll be interested to see if you think that aspect has been glossed over.

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  2. You definitely notice other races through their jobs in fiction in the U.S., too. One thing Barbara Enrenreich mentioned a few times in Nickel and Dimed (a review I shared recently that you read) is that she was often shuffled into waitressing jobs instead of housekeeping because she was white and spoke clear, fluent English, whereas housekeeping was for black or Hispanic women. She pretty much had to demand and protest to be a housekeeper (which she wanted to do for the sake of her book).

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  3. I discovered Liane Moriarty recently and like her books a lot. Her latest – Truly, Madly, Guilty – seems to me at least as good as Christos Tsoklas’ The Slap. It’s even set around a barbecue, for goodness sake! I can’t help feeling if it was written by a male writer it would be recognized as ‘literary’ instead of being treated as chick lit. Not that she needs to worry, she’s laughing all the way to the bank.

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  4. I’ve read Tsiolkas’ Loaded and Dead Europe, but not The Slap or Barracuda or seen any of the film versions. And yes, I regard him as clearly ‘literary’ – that is that he advances our understanding of how Australians may be written about. As I wrote, this is my first (Liane) Moriarty. I enjoyed it and I generally enjoy Chick Lit. BUT – I love your comment, it is really making me sweat – I think her writing is unexceptional. To make a comparison that takes me back into my comfort zone, Kylie Tennant’s writing also was unexceptional but she nevertheless stands out because of the subject matter she introduced and the way she dealt with it, and I don’t think that applies to Moriarty.
    However, I reviewed both the books in this post straight off one listening and I’m happy to chase up Moriarty in a real book over the next 2 or 3 months and do a proper review.

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  5. I read Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret a couple of years ago for one of my book clubs and I would classify it as chick lit. I find it difficult to classify books sometimes but this particular book did seem to fit squarely within that genre.

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