Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Fiction — audiobook. Read by Caroline Lee. Penguin Audio, 2014. 16 hours. Library copy.

Twenty-four year old, single mother Jane has decided to relocate with her five-year-old son, Ziggy, to the oceanside community of Pirriwee, Australia. Ziggy is excited to start kindergarten at Pirriwee Public, but Jane is apprehensive about how well her son will adjust and, even more so, about how well received she will be received by members of the “Blonde Bob”, a caddy group of mothers who seemingly run the school.

On the way to kindergarten orientation in December, Jane ends up assisting forty-year-old Madeline after the later twists her ankle and both she and Ziggy quickly become friends with Madeline and Madeline’s daughter, Zoe, respectively. And Madeline quickly defends Jane and Ziggy after Renata, a high-powered executive idolized by some mothers at Pirriwee Public, demands Ziggy apologize for choking her five-year-old daughter, Amabella. Ziggy says he did not hurt Amabella, and Jane refuses to make her son apologize for something he did not do.

That refusal earns Jane the score of the kindergarten mums at Pirriwee Public, especially after Amabella begins coming home with bruises and bite marks. The community is split along those circulating a petition calling for Ziggy to be suspended and those – namely, Madeline and a mother to twin boys named Celeste – who stand by Jane’s assertion that her son is innocent, and the conflict ultimately concludes with a murder during Pirriwee Public’s casino fundraiser for parents.

If that last statement caused you eyebrows to rise in confusion and/or alarm, I can assure you that the murder is merely the hook to pull the reader into the story. The main narrative concerns itself with Ziggy’s guilt or innocence and whether or not his behavior is the fault of nature (his absentee father) or nurture (Jane) while also examining Celeste’s picture perfect marriage and exploring Madeline’s complex feelings towards the ex-husband who walked out on her while their daughter was three weeks old and now has a daughter in the same kindergarten class as Zoe and Ziggy.

The only reminders that this is an active murder investigation are the short interviews from minor characters, which are unfortunately not labeled as such by the audiobook’s narrator. And other questions about the lives of these three mothers – Who is Ziggy’s father? How will Madeline accept Abigail’s decision to move in with her father? Why does Celeste stay? – are the primary concern of both the reader and the writer. The murder is merely the nicely tied bow of an ending I’ve come to associate with Moriarty’s writing. Sounds odd, yes, but it’s the best way to describe why a murder is even included in this tale.

After all the problems I had with Moriarty’s previous novel, more than a few members of my book club were surprised to see me show up for a discussion on another one of her novels. Yet most of my issues stemmed from the content of the novel rather than the writing itself and curiosity got the best of me. While there were so similarities between this book and her previous one – strangulation, murder, motherhood, broken relationships – I felt she handled these issues in a more mature, if I can use that word, manner. The evil in the world expressed in this novel is never forgiven, never glossed over, and never excused away.

This book does provide one of the most compelling arguments for never having children, though. And it has nothing to do with the children in the novel and everything to do with the way these parents treat one another. I told a close friend to, please, smack me upside the head if I ever reach the point in my life where my biggest concern is that another mother lost the class stuffed animal.

Some of the characters have very real problems in their lives, but they are so concerned about how other parents will view them that they hide those problems behind smoke and mirrors. Or, they viciously attack one another presumably to make themselves feel better. Seems like a terribly unhealthy and unhappy way to live, although it did help to contribute to the mystery surrounding who the victim could be.

As for Moriarty’s writing, I loved everything about it – the well-crafted dialog, the thoughtfully expressed emotions that made my blood boil and my chest ache – until the end when a backstory for a character largely marginalized by the story was suddenly provided. Her need for a neatly wrapped bow of ending knocked the book down slightly in my estimation and felt incredibly rushed for how much detail she put into the rest of the book to craft her tale.

Caroline Lee is quickly becoming one of my favorite audiobook narrators. There is something so comforting about her voice, which helps balance out of the darkness Moriarty explores her novel, and it was rather pleasurable to listen to the audiobook in the two days between it appearing on the hold shelf for me at the library and my book club’s meeting.

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