Somewhere in the almost 16 hours of the audio version of BIG LITTLE LIES is a good story. Even a great one, though the ending was too schmaltzy for my tastes. But that good story is only 8 hours long. 10 at a stretch. If I’d been reading this in print form I’d have skipped great swathes of it just to get to the point.
At its heart it is the story of three women. They all have kindergarten-aged children attending Pirriwee Public school in a beachside suburb of Sydney. Madeline is the loud, feisty, funny one. She is struggling to come to terms with the role her ex-husband and his new wife are playing in her oldest daughter’s life but she tackles this, and everything else in life, head-on. Celeste is the stupidly rich, beautiful one who adores her twin boys enough to stay with their father. Even though he is violent. Jane is the single mother, young enough to be mistaken for the nanny. When her son is accused of bullying she is torn between believing him innocent and wondering if he has inherited something awful from the man she slept with once.
All three of these characters, and most of the minor ones who flesh out this world, are well drawn. Not all are likeable – as in real life – but they are realistic. People you’ve met. People you’ve liked. People you’ve tried to avoid being in the same room with. The politics that plays out in the school community is deftly drawn and – again – believable. If you haven’t had this exact experience you’ve come close in a workplace or community group or somewhere. People forging alliances for their own selfish ends, listening to half-truths, manufacturing outrage on behalf of others, taking action without thought… Moriarty has depicted this type of community with equal parts heart and humour and spot-on observational skills.
The problem, for me, is that BIG LITTLE LIES lacked suspense. Partly due to the often stultifying details that pad out the book, especially in the first half. And partly due to its predictability.
We learn at the beginning of the book that someone dies at the school trivia night but we don’t know who or how. We then go back to the beginning of the school year – ostensibly to the point that sets events in motion – and discover what series of events lead to the death. But it’s a bit like watching a children’s pantomime. Every time something even vaguely scary (or interesting) looks like happening there were so many hints I wanted to scream “look out he’s behind you“. I guess I don’t like books that tell me every, single thing they want me know. I like to be left to use my own imagination. Or at least be able to feel a little bit clever for seeing where things are going. Here the signposts are so big and loud and obvious even someone not paying attention at all would have known what was coming.
For half a moment towards the end I thought there might have been a genuine surprise. Some people’s initial reaction to the death was not quite as predictable or as ordinary as the rest of the book would have suggested. If it had finished then – at about the 15-hour mark – I would have felt better about the overall read. But it didn’t. Finish then I mean. Ultimately no one did anything extraordinary and everything was wrapped up very, very neatly. Just as the real world doesn’t ever do.
I think I’m crankier than I ought to be with a book that isn’t all bad and has elements that are genuinely good. But it’s the missed opportunity that I mind most. BIG LITTLE LIES had the potential to be something…else. Memorable rather than forgettable. Subversive rather than safe.
This is the 7th book I’ve read and reviewed for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Caroline Lee
Publisher Bolinda Audio, 2014
Length 15 hours 56 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
Source of review copy I bought it