This is the third Liane Moriarty book I’ve read (I’m working backwards through my recent reading, so bear with me) and my least favourite so far – which feels rather ironic, given that the receipt of a bad review causes such emotional crisis for one of the characters in this book. The formula is similar to that in Moriarty’s other books: a group of apparently successful, well-adjusted people come together and begin to realise that nothing is quite as glossy and simple as it seems. In the other Moriarty novels I’ve read – Truly Madly Guilty and The Husband’s Secret – the action unfolds in the wealthy Australian suburbs among the chattering classes. The unsettling elements arise organically from the complexities of everyday life. In Nine Perfect Strangers, however, our characters are taken out of their routines and thrown into a more ‘engineered’ situation. They meet at Tranquillum House, an exclusive health resort offering a ten-day cleanse that will lead to personal and spiritual transformation. All they need to do is follow the personalised schedules designed by the resort staff; but little do they know that these schedules have been designed to press them to their limits.
Frances is a middle-aged romance author, survivor of two amicable divorces, who has never particularly wanted children or a family. Yet now, in her comfortable early fifties (perhaps too comfortable), she finds herself facing the unpleasant prospect of being a ‘has been’, a quaint irrelevance on her publisher’s books. Confounded by the miseries of the menopause, Frances decides she needs a break to reconnect with herself and to put things in perspective. Hence, Tranquillum House. Ben and Jessica, her fellow guests, have come in the hope of couples’ counselling, after their fledgling marriage suffers an unexpected blow in the shape of too much good fortune, too quickly. Obsessed with the image-centred world of social media, Jessica has transformed herself away from the girl Ben fell in love with; while Ben seems to have developed deeper feelings for his precious new Lamborghini than for his wife. Dapper divorce lawyer Lars has come alone for a regular health-fix, cheerfully pampering himself as a way to avoid thinking about the awkward questions that have recently arisen in his relationship.
Carmel is the kind of character familiar from Moriarty’s other books: the overworked, underappreciated single mum who measures herself up ruthlessly against her ex-husband’s glamorous new wife. Seeking approval, Carmel comes to Tranquillum House in search of weight loss and physical toning, little realising that outward improvements mean little unless the mind is healed as well. The same goes for Tony, a former sportsman who lost his self-regard along with his ex-wife, and who only comes on the course after a health scare. Finally there is a family group: Napoleon, Heather and their daughter Zoe, who have chosen Tranquillum House in the hope of dealing with a terrible loss. Masha, the domineering owner of the House, is confident that she can help all these people to become the best selves they can be – they just need to trust her, to stop fighting back and to accept that she knows best. But how successful can a programme be when it relies upon the meek self-abasement of its participants? Masha and her nine guests are about to realise, the hard way, that radical transformation is never easy.
Part of the reason that the book felt unsatisfying was that Moriarty sets things up to be far more dramatic than they turn out to be. This isn’t just a story of people learning who they really are – it flirts with a territory somewhere between psychological thriller and potential horror. She steps beyond the bounds of plausibility in chasing the former, but doesn’t have the guts to push her characters into the full-on horror story that’s crying out to be told here. Nine people, alone in a deserted old house with a megalomaniac and her two minions… it’s the classic opening for something intense and heart-pounding. But instead, Moriarty pulls the rug out from under you. Maybe it’s done with a nudge and a wink, to suggest that you fell for it just as easily as her characters; but it means that everything ends up feeling anticlimactic, messy and a bit pointless. Masha could be a thing of the Grand Guignol, but is neutered to absurdity. What is the point Moriarty is trying to make? I found myself wondering that on several occasions. Is it a satire on the self-obsessed cultural appropriation of health resorts, and the godlike status of their directors? Is it a way to take her books in a new direction without actually scaring the horses and making Nine Perfect Strangers too different to the others? Is it a diagnosis of the various ills that afflict the modern mind and body – obesity, complacency, social media obsession, affluence, an over-abundance of choice – on top of the tragedies that affect us in our capacity as human beings, such as bereavement, loss, illness etc.? Is it an ironic metafictional commentary on an author’s life? Whatever it’s meant to be, it’s unfortunately a bit of a curate’s egg.
However, I’ve been saving the ‘best’, or at least the most famous, for last, so Big Little Lies is waiting on my Kindle. That sounds like it might be a return to the kind of glossy suburban secrets of Truly Madly Guilty, so fingers crossed: I need a good plane read lined up. I see that, just as Big Little Lies has been made into a TV show, Nine Perfect Strangers is now being adapted by Nicole Kidman’s own production company. Perhaps they’ll find a way of making it slightly more effective – perhaps slightly darker – on film…