Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Erika has the whole event planned: an afternoon tea with her friend, Clementine, Clementine's husband, Sam, and the couple's two young daughters, Holly and Ruby. She even has a glittery art table set up for the youngsters. But the day is derailed when Erika runs into her next-door neighbor, Vid, who invites both couples over for a last minute barbecue. Erika and her husband, Oliver, aren't the last minute types; besides, they had something they needed to talk about with Clementine and Sam. But, Erika feels like obligated to say yes. Clementine and Sam are secretly relieved, as Vid and his beautiful wife Tiffany are far more personable than Erika and Oliver. The afternoon starts off well enough; Tiffany and Vid's daughter, Dakota, is even happy enough to hang out with Holly and Ruby. But by the time the night is over, lives will be changed, and all the adults--Sam and Clementine in particular--will find themselves wishing they never attended this impromptu event.
So we all know the drill by now. Liane Moriarty is a well-known master of dramatic suspense, especially at capturing the tension that hides behind ordinary lives. I went through a period where I read all of Moriarty's books; What Alice Forgot and her last novel, Big Little Lies, rank as two of my particular favorites. Anyway, Moriarty has become rather famous in the book world, with Big Little Lies being made into a 7-episode HBO TV series, starring Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman.
Of course, with such fame comes great responsibility. And pressure. Can a new work live up to the hype and excitement of the previous? This one will divide readers. It certainly has all the hallmarks of a typical Moriarty novel: a cast of women (and men) living ordinary lives on the surface, with a hidden veneer beneath. There's a secret layer to all of Moriarty's characters, though the drama associated with those in Truly Madly Guilty may not live up to some of her other novels.
First of all, this book will frustrate you. The beginning is incredibly maddening, as Moriarty starts leading up to the events that happened at the barbecue... in slow, excruciating detail. As she does so, we alternate chapters with the present, with the point-of-view told from our various characters. We have Erika, a slightly repressed accountant whose life has been formed around her stressful childhood as the only daughter of her hoarder mother, and Erika's husband, Oliver, her equally steady mate, who grew up with alcoholic parents and longs for the same order in life as Erika. Clementine and Erika have been friends since childhood, when Clementine basically felt Erika's friendship was forced upon her by Clementine's social worker mother, who felt bad for Erika and her flea-infested home. Clementine is a cellist and a bit of a free spirit, but she's balanced by her more grounded husband Sam, who works in business at an energy drink company. They are parents to five-year-old Holly and two-year-old, Ruby. And then, finally, we have Erika and Oliver's neighbors, Vid and Tiffany. Swarthy, wealthy Vid is a joyous, open man who loves sharing his home (and his food) with friends and family. His gorgeous wife Tiffany is his pride and joy. Their quiet 10-year-old daughter, Dakota, just loves to read.
See how I just distracted you from the events of the barbecue by a description of the characters? Imagine that, for pages and pages! It's a great technique, don't get me wrong, but there was one point where I truly wanted to fling the book across the room. "JUST TELL ME WHAT HAPPENS!" I actually shouted in my (thankfully empty) bedroom. I've read some reviews that state that the big reveal, when it happens, isn't shocking enough, but I disagree: I think that event would certainly change my life and haunt my dreams (no more than that; a spoiler will truly ruin this book).
So while this novel can be a bit frustrating, it really is a Liane Moriarty book. It's compulsively readable. At first, I thought it was a very detailed look at three self-involved couples, but over time, I realized I had really fallen for Erika and Oliver and eventually, Tiffany and Vid, too (and Dakota, I loved Dakota!). Moriarty has a way of humanizing her characters and differentiating each from another: they all stand as individuals. Even Sam and Clementine, who were my least favorites, were their own people. It's the tiny details and pieces about each that she sticks in that really build your picture of each character in your mind. Much of the book takes place in the rain, and I could truly visualize each character and every event, unspooling, in this torrential Sydney downpour.
Overall, this book connected with me less on a dramatic, "oh my gosh" level (though that exists) but more on an emotional one. It speaks to the guilt we can all feel about life events--adults and kids alike--and potentially carry with us all of our days. Not a lot may happen in the book, per se, yet it's really a strong story of friendship, marriage, life, and loss. When I framed it in that perspective, versus looking purely for moments of dramatic tension, I realized I'd really enjoyed it. A strong 3.5 stars and definitely worth picking up. Just keep an open mind.
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