Book Review: Nine Perfect Strangers, by Liane Moriarty

Rather uncharacteristically, I read this international best seller soon after its release (following a binge of childhood-era fantasy, cause hey! squirrel!). I was drawn by several factors: Aussie author (a neighbour, one suburb over), worldwide success, and — not in the least — Moriarty’s hilarious author’s bio.

I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting into (beyond a vague “contemporary literary fiction” label), but it fit my mood so I delved right in.

What to expect

A tale of a dozen people, all with plenty of emotional baggage. Their individual stories interweave together, as they come together at a health retreat, looking to heal and possibly transform their lives. There is not much in the way of plot, just enough framework to drive the continual revelations and change in the characters, and to provide opportunities for the occasional touch of humour.

And the characters are indeed the strength of the novel. They make you feel as you read — relate to their past sorrows, current plights, and future triumphs — which is the ultimate goal of such literary fiction novels. 

What I liked

The writing style in conversational (lots of exclamation marks — more than my editor will let me get away with), and very flowing. Moriarty uses this effectively to humanise her characters, and to provide both touches of humour and immediacy to their emotions. All the characters, in turn, are excellently drawn individuals, and one has no troubles visualising and relating to them as fully realised human beings.

The viewpoints are excellently done, each with their own tone. What’s more, events from the past are revealed in line with how a person might think about them. Those snippets are therefore continually surprising and challenging, as the reader both tries to guess and is led by tantalising half-truths to wrong conclusions about the characters’ past and its effect on their present.

What to be aware of

As with Dan Buri’s Pieces like Pottery (which, if you haven’t read — you should!), the stories touch on emotional traumas. It can be harrowing to read at times, when it touches on your own personal losses.

Also, in terms of plot, there isn’t a lot that’s going on, nor is it particularly fast or twisty. The strength of the novel lies on the characters — on our empathy and interest and willingness (even eagerness) to learn more about them. In the first third of a Felix mystery he handles a corpse or two and runs around the city twice, from or after perpetrators of more murders and violence. In Nine Perfect Strangers the protagonists check into the spa and have a quiet dinner.

I’m exaggerating a bit, of course, but the point is that this book is truly just about the lives of the characters, their past, present, and future. You will want to read this because you will find yourself caring about them and their troubles. I think any dark fantasy / horror author can learn from this approach — one can impact the reader without resorting to graphic violence. In fact, in order for the horror element to be horrifying, it needs to be personal (or, perhaps, are readers of those genres looking for the descriptively-gory-but-emotionally-distant experience? A discussion for another day.) Anyway, seeing different treatments is why I read across genres in the first place.

Summary

I loved this novel, even though (or perhaps because) it was extremely emotionally hard to read at times. That is its strength, what makes for a satisfying (albeit a tad sappy) experience. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who wishes to see a masterful treatment of view points, and how to construct a story purely on character and emotion.

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