I watched season 1 of Big Little Lies, and while it was entertaining, there were a couple of things that bothered me. How could someone in Jane’s income bracket afford to live in affluent Monterey? And I couldn’t see Rich-Mos like Renata and Celeste making friends with Jane, so I decided to see how the book handled these troublesome details. The book, it turns out, is set in Australia.
But for those one or two people who don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll start at the beginning. Big Little Lies (the book) is set in the coastal town of Pirriwee, and begins with some horrible event. At first it’s not clear what has happened but we are given clues through the narrative and also through a series of interviews with the police. It’s then we learn that a murder has occurred on Trivia Night–an annual fundraiser which takes place at the school. Murder at an elementary school fundraiser? It boggles the mind. (Well there was that cheerleading thing in Texas….). Then the book goes back in time to six months before Trivia Night and moves forward.
The main gist of the story is the arrival in Pirriwee of Jane, a young single mother who has moved to this Australian coastal town with her 5 year old son Ziggy. On Orientation Day she meets Madeleine, the driven, outgoing alpha mother who’s married to Ed and has three children: 14-year-old Abigail (from a failed first marriage to Nathan). Fred and Chloe are her children with Ed.
All the trouble starts when Amabella, daughter of the wealthy Renata Klein says someone choked her, and then in front of the entire class, when prompted by the teacher, she points at Ziggy as the culprit. When school begins, Amabella is continually bullied, unobserved by the teachers, and one parent organizes a petition to boot Ziggy from the school. Opposing factions coalesce on the for/against side.
While the furor surrounding Ziggy is ostensibly the main thrust here, it’s a segue into the lives and culture of the parents. Certain children are popular. “Walking into school with Chloe was like walking arriving with a golden ticket,” and those sort of status relationships continue into adulthood; Renata for example has Harper for a groupie. Main characters are Jane, Madeline, Renata, Celeste (a woman who seems to have it all), and if we drop back a bit there’s Bonnie, Nathan’s new wife. As the plot unfolds, it’s clear that Jane isn’t ‘just’ a single mother–her child Ziggy is the result of an unsavory encounter Jane had with a stranger–an encounter which has permanently damaged her.
The novel tackles the subject of female friendship and competitiveness. Renata and Madeline, who are complete opposites, are natural antagonists. You have to laugh at the mothers who organise a support group for “parents of gifted children.” And of course, the group rubs those who don’t belong the wrong way.
Madeline imagined them all sitting in a circle, wringing their hands while their eyes shone with secret pride.
For those who’ve seen the series (I’ve seen series 1 & 2) there are some differences in the storylines. The book-version of Madeline is not as well off as she’s portrayed in the TV version, and her screen story is much more developed than in the book. I can see why Madeline’s screen story is developed as she’s a fantastic, witty, tart-mouthed character. Jane’s encounter with the father of Ziggy is also quite different. I’m not sure why the series version was altered from the book version–possibly because the book’s version of events is rather more complex.
Anyway, this was an entertaining read and my favorite sections concerned Madeline’s observations of Nathan and his new wife. It’s particularly galling for Madeline to see her ex Nathan and his second wife and their child at Pirriwee school. He walked out on Madeline when Abigail was a baby and provided no support. Now he appears to be a nauseatingly “upgraded version,” of a husband and father, going to Yoga, volunteering for the homeless. To Madeline, Bonnie who is into “yoga and chakras” and who probably gave “organic blow jobs,” doesn’t seem like a real person:
Even though she’d known Bonnie for years now, even though they’d had a hundred civil conversations, she still didn’t seem like a real person . She felt like a caricature to Madeline. It was impossible to imagine her doing anything normal. Was she ever grumpy? Did she ever yell? Fall about laughing? Eat too much? Drink too much? Call out for someone to bring her toilet paper? Lose her car keys? Was she ever just a human being? Did she ever stop talking in that creepy, singsong yoga teacher voice?
While this may seem like a ‘beach read’ (and it is highly readable, btw) there are a lot of truisms here. Bullying, dominance, status, parenting and control are all examined here, and author Liane Moriarty knows how to weave suspense. When the book opens, it seems entirely possible that the violence on Trivia Night exploded between some of the mothers, and the tension between Renata’s supporters and Madeline’s supporters could certainly, plausibly, reach the level of violence, but for those of us who’ve seen the series, we know the violence has another root cause.