The Last Anniversary (2005): Liane Moriarty

★★★

In the midst of the Great Depression in 1932, two teenage sisters find a baby in an abandoned house on a small Australian island. Connie and Rose explain to reporters how they’d been invited to tea at Alice Munro’s house; how they arrived to find the kettle boiling and a marble cake cooling on the kitchen table, but no sign of Alice or Jack Munro anywhere in the house. Their clothes remained in the wardrobe; their baby daughter lay sleeping in her crib; but all that remained of the Munros was an overturned chair and a few specks on the floor, which might be blood. The Munro Baby Mystery swiftly becomes a famous puzzle, sparking conspiracy theories and the inevitable flood of curious tourists. Connie and Rose, ever entrepreneurial, are waiting for them with cups of tea and slices of cake (at a modest price). Seventy years on, the Munro House on Scribbly Gum Island has become a beloved tourist attraction, and Connie, Rose and (former) baby Engima have become wealthy women. But Connie’s death sets in motion a train of events that will place the Munro Baby Mystery under tighter scrutiny than ever before.

Connie has always had a mind of her own, ruling the Scribbly Gum Island business with a firm hand. It’s completely in character for her to have included a startling clause in her will, leaving her beautiful home on the island to her great-nephew’s ex-girlfriend. Sophie is as startled as anyone else. She still feels guilty about breaking Thomas’s heart, although he has since found happiness with another woman, and now has a baby daughter – but she can’t deny a surge of interest in this unexpected bequest. Sophie has always been captivated by the Munro Baby Mystery and now, thrillingly, unexpectedly, Connie has given her the chance to become part of the story. Most of the family accept Connie’s wishes: they already have homes on the island, or have left for more conventional lives on the mainland. And everyone always loved Sophie, who has a gift for being liked (despite, or perhaps because of, her endearing habit of furious blushing). The only one who takes Connie’s bequest badly is Thomas’s sister Veronika, who simply can’t bring herself to forgive Sophie for betraying the family. And so Sophie moves into the house on Scribbly Gum Island, as if embarking on a new life granted by an unexpected fairy godmother, waking up to gorgeous river views and watching kookaburras on her balcony. Here, at last, she hopes to get her life in some kind of order. She’s almost forty and, with a string of failed relationships behind her, has nearly given up hope of finding a happy partnership and having children – but Connie, in the letter offering her the house, hints that the perfect man for Sophie might be just here on Scribbly Gum Island. But who?

The other books I’ve read so far by Liane Moriarty have focused on high-achieving women in stifled suburban lives, paddling like hell to preserve the impression of serene gliding ease. She specialises in family secrets, unspoken truths that threaten to spring up like jack-in-the-boxes, shattering the peace of comfortable lives. The Last Anniversary definitely ties in to the ‘family secret’ theme, although the atmosphere feels very different from the ‘brittle suburban wife’ trend of her other books. This feels almost like an adventure story crossed with a rom-com: a young woman bequeathed a gorgeous house on a mysterious island; a search for Mr Right; the sense of a benevolent power working from beyond the grave. Sophie has bounced right out of a piece of chick-lit: the pretty, lovable, free-spirited woman who is running out of time to have the family she’s always wanted, but who is surely bound for a happy ending. And the family on Scribbly Gum Island (itself a hard name to take seriously) are painted in generally broad strokes, giving them archetypal qualities, at least at first. As time goes on, they do begin to develop deeper reserves of character – Grace and Margie have particularly engaging stories – but it’s hard to shake the initial feeling of a quaint, old-fashioned community who help the frustrated city slicker find a simpler mode of life.

Of course, the mystery is always bubbling always underneath and Moriarty toys with us, throwing in hints (or red herrings?) here and there to see if we can figure out the real story of Alice and Jack Munro. It makes for an easy, engaging book, perfect fodder for a sunny afternoon in the park, and surprisingly difficult to put down – although there are a few gaps and unanswered questions left hanging at the end. I enjoyed this far more than Nine Perfect Strangers, but perhaps not quite as much as Truly Madly Guilty, the first of Moriarty’s books that I read (which I haven’t yet written about here). Ultimately, The Last Anniversary requires the reader to suspend a certain amount of disbelief, and to assume that people haven’t been asking the kinds of questions that people automatically would… but that doesn’t stop it from being a cheerful, light read: a kind of palate cleanser, flirting its way between the genres of rom-com, thriller and mystery.

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