Published by Michael Joseph
Remember, remember the craze for chick lit that peaked with the likes of literary queens Helen Fielding and Marian Keyes in the late 90s/early 00s and spawned dozens, hundreds, THOUSANDS of pretenders to the throne? Some were good, some really good, some would have you question the reasoning of the publishers in endorsing the derivative tripe produced, most were insipid and predictable but grand for a quick read on the beach or by the fire (with a glass of wine or two; it never really mattered if you forgot a couple of chapters, like a soap opera it was pretty easy to catch up with the plot again, seeing as it was fairly easy to know what was about to happen).
The reign of chick lit inevitably came to an end, fizzling out with the emergence of less frothy, more serious writing almost as a backlash against it. Not that I’d ever call Fielding or Keyes’s work frothy – the best of chick lit was writing at its finest; their plotting, characters and effortless humour meticulously outlined and rightly, widely celebrated. It’s these works that were rebranded ‘women’s fiction’, casting off the now-considered-derogatory term ‘chick lit’, and now, in an age where (good) women’s fiction is given the time, attention and praise it deserves, Liane Moriarty joins the ranks of royalty.
Moriarty first came into my life last year, when Big Little Lies was broadcast. A huge hit based on Moriarty’s book of the same name, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman’s adaptation was wildly lauded by critics, winning awards, gaining plaudits and stirring up some serious conversations about domestic abuse. Even though the book version of Big Little Lies went straight to number one on the book charts upon release, well before the TV version had been made, it’s the TV version that steered many international readers, including yours truly, onto her back catalogue.
By the end of this summer, having started with What Alice Forgot, I had them all read with a voraciousness I hadn’t experienced since the Marian Keyes era, and was hungry for more. Moriarty has a lightness of touch not seen since the glory days of Helen Fielding that belies the often serious or dramatic parts of her stories. Her characters hum with relatability, her plots are wholly believable, even when they take an outlandish twist in direction.
Nine Perfect Strangers, her latest offering, largely takes place in a health sanatorium patronised by a set of guests hoping to change their lives with the ten-day intensive treatment. We have Frances, a 52 year old author of romance novels recovering after an internet romance scam, a bereaved family of three, a couple in need of relationship rejuventation and a number of singletons there for various generally misguided reasons. It’s a bigger ensemble than previous efforts, which have often taken the perspective of two or three protagonists – here we have over 10 – but some are given more time than others from their point of view, with Frances standing out as the driver of the story.
Each guest has a story, as does the charismatic director of the retreat and her right hand man, Yao. As you’d find with any group of people, some are much more interesting than the others – a weeping woman who is a member of the Nine is introduced quite late on into the book, and she has an unexpected, empowering moment that gets the group out of a tight spot that justifies her existence in the narrative. While she represents a damaged and neglected area of society (that of the recently divorced, image obsessed despite being a previously successful and confident woman) if there was one character that could be cut it would be hers.
The grieving family largely exists as a unit, their narrative and reason for being intricately tied together, and the couple in need of counselling are similarly bound together. While the others are there to round out the story, it’s Frances to stay for, a great new creation with brilliant lines in cheerful criticism of the treatment of women past 50, the snobbery of the literary world and the suspicion met by women who choose not to have children.
Nine Perfect Strangers, though very entertaining with a richly woven plot and well executed characters, isn’t itself perfect. It takes a bizarre turn, upsetting the flow and upping the tension, defying the genre with its change of direction and not necessarily successfully resolving that storyline or some of the other minor threads. That said, I will proudly add it to my pile of women’s fiction, and am sure to return to it time and again, with it eventually ending up as dog-eared as my copy of Bridget Jones’s Diary.
- First published in The Tuam Herald on Wednesday, 7th November 2018