Thanks to NetGalley and to Penguin UK – Michael Joseph for offering me a copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
I read and reviewed Liane Moriarty’s recent novel Truly, Madly, Guilty and when I was checking the reviews I read many comments referring to the author’s sense of humour that was not so evident in that novel (don’t let that put you off. It’s a fascinating story and the style of the narration is pretty unique) and I read many people referring to this novel. I also happened to watch a couple of the episodes of the HBO series and wondered how they might compare to the book. I haven’t watched the whole series, so I can’t comment in full but I must say the book is fantastic.
The novel tells the story of the events that take place at an Australian primary school (Pirriwee Public School) during an event organised for parents, the Trivia Night (where the participants are supposed to dress up like Audrey Hepburn and Elvis Presley. Yes, you can imagine the scene). To tell the story, the action takes us back to the school’s induction day. While some of the mothers (and fathers, well, only one man is looking full-time after the kids but many fathers attend too) already know each other, Jane is new to the area and doesn’t know anybody. By accident, she meets Madeline, who has three kids and has seen it all. Madeline is a force of nature and adopts Jane, who is much younger and far less glamorous. Celeste, a friend of Madeline and the most beautiful and rich woman around, is the third in the fabulous trio.
The story is told in the third person from the point of view of these three women, and there are interspersed fragments of what appears to be an interview with a variety of characters, all of them parents of the children at the school, that are evidently being asked questions about what happened on that fateful night. It is no spoiler (as that is clear from very early on) if I tell you that somebody has died. The novel builds up slowly, introducing the characters and their personalities and concerns. Jane is a single Mum who’s struggling but loves her son Ziggy and does the best by him. Things start going wrong early on for her and her son due to an accusation of bullying and that sets up a number of things in motion, splitting up the parents and creating a lot of misunderstandings and resentment. Jane is also hiding some secrets that have seriously affected her life and she moved there seeking some sort of closure. Madeline is the funniest characters. She is quick-witted, loves clothes and shoes, does not tolerate fools gladly and hates the fact that her ex-husband (and father of her teenage daughter Abigail, Nathan, who abandoned her leaving her to bring up their child alone when she was only a baby) has remarried and is now living in close proximity. Not only that but, his daughter, Sky, goes to the same school as her youngest one, Chloe. She is not one for forgiving and forgetting and she has a very hard time accepting that Abigail is becoming close to her father. Her character offers light relief as she’s quite extreme in her passions and behaviour and seemingly superficial —hers is a familiar character of chick-lit books — but it’s impossible not to like her or side with her as her heart is in the right place and she is very funny. Celeste is also keeping secrets. The perfect family, and her oh, so perfect husband, is anything but, and the novel is very good at portraying the complex nature of domestic violence and the kind of mental processes the victims go through.
The short interludes, at the beginning of each chapter, of fragments of interviews with other characters manage to create a sense of what the whole community is like, and by contrasting two completely opposite answers to the same question (some hilarious, others in earnest) one easily gets a sense of how what happened, happened. Of course, the real causes of the incident go much deeper than the disagreements between the parents and the amount of alcohol consumed, as will be slowly revealed. One of the reviewers compared these fragments to a Greek chorus and it is a very apt comparison (minus the moral undertones).
This novel is very good at creating characters that we can care for, although perhaps we might not fully identify with any of them. I’ve laughed out loud at Madeline’s antics quite often (although not all is fun and games for her either) and I have worried with Celeste and Jane. The writing is agile and fluid, with the different character’s voices well captured, differentiated and believable. The small community, that becomes also another character, is vividly portrayed and the ending is surprising, as it should be in all good mysteries (I kept worrying about who the dead person might be and just worked out what was going to happen a couple of paragraphs before it did), positive and heart-warming (despite the tragedy). The book’s lightness of touch and the interspersed comedic events make it easy to read but it does not detract from the seriousness and the sensitivity with which it touches upon serious matters. Bullying, family relationships (especially the complexities of non-traditional families), domestic violence, the influence of our childhoods and the experiences we go through in later life, and of course, the dangers of secrets and lies, are all important elements of this novel, that despite the style and the subject matter fits also within the mystery category.
I recommend this novel to any readers of women’s literature, chick-lit with a sting, domestic mystery and in general to anybody who wants to have a fun time whilst reading about serious matters. Now I know for sure I must read more books by this author.