Fiction – print. Flatiron Books, 2018. 453 pgs. Purchased.
Nine strangers met at a health resort in Australia; each arrive at Tranquility House with their own goal for the 10-day, screen-free experience. Frances, a formerly bestselling romance writer, is hoping to reorient herself following the rejection of her latest novel by publishers and a stinging rebuke of her work – and of the whole genre – by a critic.
Dragged to the resort by his wife, Ben isn’t sure if the couples counseling offered by the resort will do them any good. He barely recognizes his wife. Not in the emotional sense, but in the literal after Jessica paid for a number of plastic surgeries that physically changed her from the woman he married.
Napoleon, Heather, and Zoe are the only family at the resort, and Frances spends quite a bit of time speculating as to why they might be in attendance. After all, the family loves to run; they clearly haven’t come to lose weight like the single mother of four named Carmel also staying at the resort has. Rounding out the group are two men – a gay man who regularly signs up for detox programs without his partner and a man who Frances decides looks like a serial killer.
Given the author, I expected the novel to alternate between a before and an after as well as between the characters. But Moriarty takes a break from her usual formula, allowing the novel’s events to play out in real-time. Explanation as to why each of the characters have decided to sign up for the 10-day detox program are released slowly as Frances gets to know the eight strangers on this trip with her.
About two-thirds of the way through the book, though, the narrative takes a turn for the bizarre. The owner of Tranquility House, Masha, and her assistant, Yao, have decided to use their guests as guinea pigs. There’s nothing gory or especially disturbing about their experiment; no one is chained to a metal slab and no is physically hurt.
But their experiment throws the book into the realm of the bizarre, and I can see how it would be a divisive moment for readers. You’ll either love the twist, hate it, or shake it off as an odd choice for an otherwise well-written, intriguing novel like I did.
I just keep coming back to same adjective – bizarre – to describe this one. And yet I still really enjoyed it. I liked the pacing of the story, the myriad of characters, the commentary on our desires for constant improvement, and the way a character’s breakthrough occurred and did (not) work out in the end. I have to give Moriarty kudos for throwing me with this one; I had worried that she was starting to become stale and formulaic.
On that final note, though, I must add that I’m finding her male characters to be clones of one another. The father in this book, Napoleon, is a gregarious man who enjoys talking to anyone and everyone. One of the fathers in Truly, Madly, Guilty, which I read in at the end of 2018, had the exact same characterization. The speech patterns of the two men also sounded the exact same. Hopefully, Moriarty’s next book will feature more distinctive male characters.