TL;DR – Three mothers become friends and discover the deep pains they hide beneath the surface. They want to be good wives and loving mothers, but they first have to be true to themselves and that means confronting lies that have taken on a life of their own.
Summary (warning: spoilers)
Jane is a single mother. Her son, Ziggy, is a result of being raped. Jane is angst riddled and nervous about trying to be a single parent and she secretly worries that some sort of violent DNA is inside Ziggy because of her past trauma. Her fears appear self-fulfilling as Ziggy is accused of bullying another child.
Madeleine has turned forty-years old and is not quite sure how to deal with that milestone. She is a go-getter of a woman, divorced once, married twice, and gave birth thrice. Her eldest daughter, Abigail is now fourteen and is from her previous marriage to Nathan. Nathan did a runner on Madeleine when Abigail was a baby but has returned, apparently a reformed man, and remarried to Bonnie, a Zen-like yoga instructor, and they have their own child who happens to be going to the same kindergarten as Madeleine’s five-year old daughter, Chloe. It is difficult enough that Madeleine has to confront Nathan frequently but things become more challenging when Abigail starts idolising Bonnie. Jealousy and past pains arise.
Celeste is married to Perry, a rich banker, and has twin boys – Max and Josh. Celeste is a stunner, lives a life of luxury, has a handsome husband (with whom she still has hot sex with), and appears on the surface to have the perfect life. But as we all know, appearances can be deceiving.
Together these three develop a bond that will see them through some of the toughest and most horrific situations they will ever have to face including… murder.
To be clear, the summary above makes it sound like the three main characters conspire to commit a murder. This is not the case.
However, the book opens with a school trivia night for parents that ends with someone dead and the police make it clear that it is being treated as a murder investigation. What events transpire that results in the trivia night transforming into a bloody disaster is revealed through subsequent chapters of the book. After chapter one, we are taken back six months prior to the trivia night and are introduced to Jane, Madeleine and Celeste.
Liane Moriarty captures Sydney suburbia and the daily trials and tribulations of motherhood with an ease that makes me jealous. It demonstrates the effectiveness of her writing and makes Big Little Lies an effortless page turner. The distinct voice she gives to her three main protagonists propels the reader into their minds and how they see their world. Their lives connect you and you want to find out where they end up and what choices they make.
This is the greatest strength of the story, and while there is an underlying mystery (i.e. who got murdered on the trivia night? why were they killed? and how?) that assists in driving the reader forward, it is how Moriarty captures the characters so well that it is engaging and engrossing.
Big Little Lies is all about how lies fester and damage us, and how truth can set you free. Nowhere is this more evident than with Celeste, who appears to have everything on the outside but behind closed doors, she is actually trapped in an abusive relationship. Moriarty captures this domestic violence situation with authenticity and shows us how Celeste convinces herself (essentially she is lying to herself) about her husband, Perry.
Moriarty then builds up the story to create a believable connection between Jane and Celeste (who, initially, appear to be polar opposites in terms of lifestyle and where they are in their lives). Astute readers will see the connection before it is revealed in the climatic scene at the trivia night, but you should still be rewarded with how it unfolds. I certainly was riveted by how Moriarty reveals that Perry turns out to be not only an abusive husband to Celeste but also Jane’s rapist. Madeleine is the glue that keeps the trio together, a bond that allows them to rely on each other even in the face of this horrific revelation.
But the icing on the cake comes from an unexpected source. An action by a character that I doubt many readers will foresee. That character is Bonnie, the level-headed, Zen-centred, loving-wife/mother that has filled Madeleine with jealousy and angst for most of the book. The final revelation is not that Perry is Jane’s rapist, it is that Bonnie grew up in a domestic violent family as well; Bonnie’s father would beat her mother. The life she has led has sought to bury her childhood and counter all that trauma. Though the story does not delve into Bonnie’s history more than this, one can only assume that Bonnie never sought to let this go or seek help for the trauma she experienced witnessing her mother being abused. Thus, when the trivia night occurs, and Bonnie witnesses the revelation that Celeste is in an abusive marriage and that Perry was the man who raped Jane, the calm demeanour vanishes, and the explosion is immediate. Bonnie attacks Perry with years of pent up rage and pushes him off the balcony to his death.
It is a brilliant piece of writing because 1) it actually makes sense and 2) you believe Bonnie’s hidden pain is as real as the pains the other three mothers have hidden. When she screams at Perry, “Your children see!” it is a pure reflection of her own childhood and completely believable. That is, the fact that in domestic violent situations, the children also see and absorb the abuse even if they are not the direct victims. This is a clever bit of writing indeed because Bonnie is a supporting character that we, the reader, believe has her head screwed on right and is there only as a focal point for Madeleine’s jealousy and insecurity. If you want to read any of Liane Moriarty’s work, then this is one you will not regret.
4.5 out of 5.