Big Little Truths

Don’t call Liane Moriarty’s novels fluffy—not when their characters feel so real.

Benjamin Frisch

Benjamin Frisch

The HBO series Big Little Lies is a soap opera slathered in a thick coating of California gloss, and it’s impressively addictive. It might even, like Game of Thrones, introduce hordes of new readers to the author of the book on which it is based, Liane Moriarty, although hundreds of thousands of Americans are already pretty enthusiastic about her. In 2014, they sent Big Little Lies, her sixth novel, to the No. 1 spot on the New York Times best-seller list, even as her fifth book, The Husband’s Secret, still in hardcover, lingered in the top 20. This achievement, the first for an Australian, provoked marvel in her homeland, where her success had been comparatively modest.

Moriarty writes “commercial fiction,” a hazy category that can include everything from The Help to The Da Vinci Code, but everyone agrees that it’s a genre that foregrounds plot over prose style. This, naturally, precludes any consideration of it as art, at least in the eyes of critics. Even Janet Maslin, the New York Times’ designated genre-fiction reviewer, described Big Little Lies as “fluffy” while praising Moriarty’s ability, in the novel’s darker moments, to touch base “with vicious reality.” As viewers of the HBO series quickly learn, that darkness involves domestic violence. There’s something facile about the notion that the mere confrontation of a troubling social issue automatically gives a book greater weight, while meticulously observed depictions of middle-class social life and manners or intricate, acrobatic storytelling constitute airy nothings. It’s difficult to talk about how good a novelist Liane Moriarty is because she’s especially adept at aspects of the novel that are viewed as trivial even by many of the readers who enjoy them.

True, much of commercial fiction, including some of the most successful titles, is gimcrack palaver. The typical best-seller traffics in wish-fulfillment: either idealized heroes triumphing over larger-than-life challenges, like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, or ordinary folk, like the gawky college student narrating Fifty Shades of Grey, who miraculously land Prince Charming or some other equally coveted prize, thereby proving to the world how wrong it was to underestimate them. Still others, like the novels of Jodi Picoult, employ earnest “What would you do?” scenarios organized around such contentious issues as school shootings or savior siblings, the ripped-from-the-headlines matter of Lifetime channel movies.

Moriarty’s intricately constructed novels are another beast. No, she will never win the admiration of sentence fetishists or critics who demand that a writer put “pressure on the language.” Her figurative moves are simplistic at the very best. In The Husband’s Secret, she has Rachel, a woman whose life has been warped by her grief for a teenage daughter murdered decades earlier, discover what she believes to be conclusive new evidence pointing toward the identity of the killer. When a police officer telephones Rachel to gently explain that this evidence doesn’t merit reopening the investigation, she looks out the window to watch as “a single gold leaf detached itself and began to fall, circling rapidly through the air.” At other times, Moriarty exhibits little faith in her readers’ ability to apprehend even the most obvious motifs. Her most recent novel, Truly Madly Guilty, revolves around the ungainly lifelong friendship between two women, Erika, a CPA, and Clementine, a cellist. Clementine’s instrument has a “wolf tone,” a harsh resonance produced when she plays a particular note. This can be eliminated with a piece of equipment, but Clementine feels that without the wolf tone, her cello sounds “flatter, duller.” Then, in case you missed the point, Moriarty writes, “Maybe Erika was her wolf tone. Maybe Clementine’s life would have lacked something subtle but essential without her in it: a certain richness, a certain depth.”

This isn’t admirable (or even good) writing, although by the time you arrive at that passage you don’t really care. It is, without a doubt, exactly the language Clementine would use to describe her own feelings if she chose to talk about them. She is, despite her two young daughters, an emotional adolescent, petulant, impulsive, and woolly headed, her mind forever half-occupied with her music. She stumbles into emotional insight like a person searching for a lamp in a dark room. Erika, by contrast, craves order and procedure for reasons having to do with her upbringing, reasons that Moriarty, as is her wont, reveals only gradually. Truly Madly Guilty, Moriarty’s least showy but strongest novel, is about how a pair of women became best friends even though they don’t actually like each other very much. It’s tantamount to sacrilege in some circles to say so, but I confess I found it more convincing—less romanticized and aggrandized—than Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. These two women? They are real. As is everyone else in the novel, from Erika’s nasty old neighbor to the little dog that lives across the street.

Character is Moriarty’s forte, and every element of her fiction bends to the task of doing it justice. The ranks of literary novelist are jam-packed with superior stylists but few who surpass Moriarty’s interest in and curiosity about human beings in all their infinite variety. Each of Moriarty’s three most recent and most successful novels is told from the point of view of an assortment of characters: three women in both The Husband’s Secret and Big Little Lies, and three couples, plus an 11-year-old girl, in Truly Madly Guilty. Whether the character in question is pathologically shy, obsessively organized, a bon vivant, or a dreamy bookworm, she seems to have sprung fully formed from Moriarty’s head, ready to walk around the world getting into trouble. Moriarty likes to set up a character, like the bossy Maddie in Big Little Lies, to conform to an established stereotype, then rotate the portrait a quarter-turn to reveal facets that undermine that stereotype. Maddie is a meddler, it’s true, but she is also a ferocious, instinctive champion of underdogs and the disadvantaged.

Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Shailene Woodley in Big Little Lies (2017)
Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Shailene Woodley in Big Little Lies.


David E. Kelley’s HBO adaptation of the novel transposes the action from the suburbs of north Sydney to Monterey, California, in the process making the characters much richer, their troubles often dwarfed by the backdrop of their million-dollar ocean views. It benefits from some masterful performances, particularly Reese Witherspoon, who plays Maddie, and Nicole Kidman as Celeste, a beauty concealing the fact that her marriage is either abusive or shamefully kinky—Celeste herself isn’t sure which for much of the story. Kidman transmits Celeste’s mute confusion with great sensitivity, but the series can’t compensate for the lack of Moriarty’s splendid inner monologues, which ease out the unspoken thoughts of even a chatterbox like Maddie.

Fuming over an inconvenient onset of PMS and the aggravating new age serenity of her ex’s younger second wife, Maddie thinks she “would have liked to have found a way to blame someone, ideally her ex-husband, but she couldn’t find a way to make Nathan responsible for her menstrual cycle. No doubt Bonnie danced in the moonlight to deal with the ebbs and flows of womanhood.” Maddie knows how unreasonable she’s being, but she just can’t forgive Nathan for walking out on her when their daughter was 3 weeks old. Nathan may have reformed to a degree, but in a small shrewd touch, very characteristic of Moriarty, his persistent inner kernel of self-involvement is suggested by his inability to remember the names of Maddie’s children by her second marriage.

Moriarty’s characters are neither too good to be true nor campy parodies in the Desperate Housewives mode. They are not desperate or in the throes of some ginned-up crisis. They’re just people, muddling along, each one harboring a whirlwind of conflicting anxieties and desires. The novelist Moriarty most resembles is Anthony Trollope, the consummate, untroubled bard of bourgeois life, with his fondly Olympian perspective on the messes human beings get themselves into, the way we veer from the admirable to the petty and back again. Trollope typically built his novels around a marriage plot, a young couple who wind up engaged by the end of the story. Moriarty uses the devices of murder mysteries, some of which have struck critics as overly coy. Maslin chided her (mildly) for “stalling” by withholding the identity of the victim in Big Little Lies until the novel’s end. But how crafty a gambit it is! You spend the whole novel speculating about which of the characters is capable of homicide and who’d drive him or her to it. Chances are, you’ll get it wrong, but when the revelation arrives, it nevertheless makes perfect sense.

Moriarty’s plots are clockwork marvels concealed within the shambling happenstance of everyday life. She likes to set off her eruptions of violence amid displays of middle-class complacency, like a backyard barbecue or a school fundraiser. She is a genius of misdirection. Details seemingly offered up as amusing bits of domestic color—a missing ice cream scooper or a first-grader’s crush on her middle-aged PE teacher—turn out to have unanticipated significance. Characters who seem to have settled comfortably into their roles in the narrative behave in ways that throw fresh light on their past actions. Their shortcomings are transformed into heroism and their strengths into limitations. Moriarty’s novels feature shocking developments and reach satisfying conclusions, and yet nothing that occurs in them is preposterous; it all seems the natural result of the characters she has set in motion in a world very recognizably our own.

This is especially true of Truly Madly Guilty, in which the central trauma is less sensational than a murder. Truly Madly Guilty is also the first novel in which Moriarty includes chapters written from the perspective of her male characters—in this case, three husbands. They are as sharply and compassionately drawn as her women: a marketing executive who daydreams about pursuing a more “manly” line of work; the heartbreakingly conscientious son of two feckless alcoholics; a Slovenian electrician made good who is never happier than when he’s befriending strangers and inviting them over for dinner, much to the exasperation of his sexpot wife. This opens up vistas in Moriarty’s fiction superior even to the seascapes of HBO’s Big Little Lies. For novels consistently typecast as mere beach reads, these books offer some surprisingly impressive views.

Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.