If the quote on the front of a book which seems to present itself as chick lit says “A hell of a good book. Funny and scary” and is attributed to none other than horror maestro himself, Stephen King, you know that you are about to read something a bit special. There can’t be much that Stephen King can find scary, surely?
That’s not to say that Liane Moriarty’s book deals with anything that is horror-filled but there are times when it does come across as scary in its intensity, its presentation of domestic violence and its depiction of the parental school yard as being a minefield where things can be blown up with devastating consequences. Not literally blown up, just in case you think that there is some sort of bombing in the book. No, purely on a metaphorical and you could say, emotional level.
Some of you may well have seen the HBO series which is set somewhere in California, I think and has a stellar cast including Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. I haven’t seen it although I believe that it is meant to be an excellent adaptation. However, Moriarty’s book is actually set in Sydney, Australia and more specifically revolving around Pirriwee Primary School, a school in a small beachside town outside of Sydney, making one of those big city suburbs that has a mixture of people from different classes and backgrounds.
The book begins by talking about an incident at the school’s trivia night where we know that someone has been killed but the identity of the person is not revealed until the denouement of the novel. Moriarty has her narrative take us back to the supposed time when tensions started, when there was an incident on orientation day for kindergarten between two of the children, and it is from this event that we are introduced the three main characters who the story is centred around: Madeline, Jane and Celeste.
Madeline and Celeste are already friends but Jane is new to the school and the area as well as being a lot younger and when Jane helps Madeline after an unfortunate incident that causes Madeline to hurt her ankle on the way to orientation, Madeline decides to take Jane under her wing.
Madeline is happily married to Ed and had two children, Fred and Chloe as well as a daughter, Abigail from her first marriage who is at the difficult age of 14 and provides many challenges for Madeline in the book. She has an ex-husband, Nathan with a new hippy wife called Bonnie and they also have a daughter, Skye the same age as Chloe who will be starting at kindergarten at the same time. Their proximity and presence is a source of great irritation and annoyance to Madeline. She is feisty and a loyal friend, although once you tell her something, you may not be able to stop her from acting on it so it is with caution that confidences should be shared.
Jane has a son called Ziggy and has all of the insecurities that first time mothers have. Add to this being a single mother in a school environment where the parents all seem to be in happy marriages, many of them with high powered careers and gifted children and the scene is set for many moments of discomfort for timid Jane.
Celeste is beautiful, making heads turn wherever she goes with her model type looks and posture. But she is not arrogant and does not use it for benefit. She is a nice person who seems a little distracted at times with her twin boys, Max and Josh. She is married to Perry, a hedge fund manager who is extremely wealthy, good looking, stylish and attentive to Celeste, them all living in a beautiful house overlooking the ocean. She seems to have it all but she is keeping the truth of her life secret from her friends, a life which could potentially destroy her.
Moriarty takes us through that first day where all of the parents meet each other and accusations are made about bullying right to the end where someone is killed at the trivia night and masterfully lays out how we go from one point to another, how events unfold in a particular way, our windows into people’s lives showing how what we believe we see is actually a façade in some cases and a brave defence in others. We may not know each other as well as we think we do, despite time spent talking. The veneer of everyday life gives the idea that all is normal but beneath there are secrets just waiting to emerge with explosive effect.
What Moriarty also does is depict a school where overprotective parents who are keen to show that they are standing up for their kids and ensuring that they are in the right environment take matters into their own hands in a bid to defend their youngsters from the bullying effects of other kids. This is all very well as long as the facts are corroborated as Moriarty shows that presumption can very soon lead to a reverse situation where instead of kids being protected from other kids by parents, parents are on the cusp of being responsible for the bullying of kids by their actions.
I thought that this was very deftly done and whilst the attitudes of parents are exaggerated in the book (I hope), there is an element of truth to it – I have known parents, including myself, who have steered their kids away from others due to their perceived fear that a certain kid is harming them, sometimes with actual grounds for doing this, sometimes not. And I think that Moriarty takes a subject that many parents can relate to, that the “what to do for the best” line of action does not always make itself clear. However, with so much emphasis being placed on how children can be scarred emotionally by their experiences and no-one wanting to be responsible for contributing to hurt or upset, what can you do? Act? Protect? Protest? Make a fuss? Or leave your kids to sort it out for themselves? It is a very thorny issue and very well presented in dramatic form in this novel.
I loved this book. I thought the characters were distinctive and the way that we are privy to their inner monologue, especially Madeline creates a lot of understanding of their personalities but also a lot of humour – we all have to restrain what we are really thinking a lot of the time otherwise the world would be a hotbed of discomfort and discord most of the time and it is a really good thing that we have not evolved sufficiently to mind read.