In The Spotlight: Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies

>In The Spotlight: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's Last RitualsHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One of the more popular and appealing contexts for a crime novel is the small town where everyone knows everyone, and where things are only idyllic on the surface. Such places can hide dark secrets, and that offers lots of possibility for suspense and tension. Let’s take a look at that sort of novel today, and turn the spotlight on Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies.

As the story begins, it’s Trivia Night at Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The event is intended as both a fun evening and a fundraiser for the school, so that Smart Boards can be provided for the classrooms. The hors d’oeuvres don’t arrive on time, and everyone drinks more than is judicious with no food to go along with it. The alcohol fuels conflicts, and the evening ends tragically. The police begin an investigation, and we begin to learn a bit about the people involved.

The novel then takes the reader back six months, and tells what happened in Piriwee Beach that led to the events of Trivia Night. As the story unfolds, we follow the lives of three families, all of whom have children enrolled in Piriwee Public’s Kindergarten class.

One family consists of Madeline Mackenzie, her second husband Ed, and their children Fred and Chloe. There’s also Madeline’s daughter, Abigail, whose father, Nathan, has recently remarried. Another family is the White family: Perry, his wife Celeste, and their twin sons Max and Josh. The third is Jane Chapman and her son, Ziggy. All three families are in different socioeconomic situations, have different sorts of dynamics and so on. But each has at least one child in the same class. And soon, Madeline, Celeste, and Jane become friends.

Trouble begins for Jane when one of the most influential ‘school mums,’ Renata Klein, accuses Ziggy of bullying her daughter Amabella. Ziggy claims that he’s not responsible, but Renata has a lot of sway, and before long, most people believe her. Celeste and Madeline don’t, though, so one plot thread of this novel follows the escalating conflict between the ‘Renata camp,’ and the ‘Jane/Madeline/Celeste’ camp.

In the meantime, each woman is facing other challenges. Madeline’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Abigail, has decided to move in with her father and his new wife, Bonnie (who, incidentally, also have a child in the Kindergarten). Jane has to cope with the outright hostility she faces at the school, not to mention the fact that several of Ziggy’s classmates are being told to avoid him, and that they’re not allowed to play with him. And Celeste has her own home-front issues.

The school-related and personal plot threads come together one fateful night. All of the simmering tension comes to a boil, so to speak, and the result is a tragedy. Each of the three families is profoundly affected, and is going to have to find a way to deal with what happens.

One of the important elements in this novel is the difference between image and reality. On the surface, Celeste and Perry White are the king and queen of the school, and their sons two young princes. They’re extremely wealthy, and Celeste has to work to ensure she doesn’t make other people feel uncomfortable around so much money. They’re a good-looking family, too, whom a lot of people envy. But we learn that there’s a high price to pay for that sort of life. Madeline is smart, tough, and very much her own person, whom more than one person envies for her independence. She’s happily married, too. But she’s hardly perfect, and has her own sadness to hide. When Madeline and Celeste take Jane under their wings, they see her as vulnerable and shy. And she is. But there’s a lot about Jane that they don’t know at first.

As we learn more and more about the different characters, we see how their lives are much more intertwined than they imagined. Those inter-relationships are also an element of this novel. And the context (a small town) is consistent with that element. Everyone is connected in some way to everyone else. And when anything happens, gossip about it, however untrue, spreads very quickly.

Another element in the story is the school setting. There’s a definite social structure within the school, and anyone who’s ever been closely involved with a school will find it familiar. There is the group of (mostly) mothers, nicknamed the Blond Bobs, who run the school’s social life. They put together events, and do much of the work of parent activism:
 

‘The Blond Bobs rule the school. If you want to be on the PTA, you have to have a blond bob…it’s like a bylaw.’
 

There are also people often called Helicopter Parents. They’re the ones who insist that their children get special consideration, and sometimes even go to the school to, as the saying goes, fight their children’s fights. Trust me, such parents exist. And there’s the pettiness, cattiness and competitiveness you’d expect in such a group. Through it all moves the teacher, Rebecca Barnes, who’s trying to do the best job she can, and doesn’t want parental politics getting in the way.

And it’s the school politics that also add some lighter moments to the story. Those who’ve spent a lot of time at schools, and have served on the PTA, or a fundraising committee, will relate to that aspect of the novel. But this isn’t a comic, ‘frothy’ novel. The reality of what’s going on is very sad at times.

For example, the element of bullying and its impact also plays an important role in the novel. Bullying is a serious issue, and it has lasting and sometimes tragic consequences. Moriarty explores the way bullying can occur, how it may be learned, who’s affected, and how different people respond to it.

Big Little Lies is the story of three families and the way their lives intersect at the beginning of one fateful school year. It explores the lies we tell ourselves and others, and shows the consequences of bullying for everyone involved. But what’s your view? Have you read Big Little Lies? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 29 August/Tuesday, 30 August – The Last Child – John Hart

Monday, 5 September/Tuesday, 6 September – The Last Act of All – Aline Templeton

Monday, 12 September/Tuesday, 13 September – Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog – Boris Akunin

36 Comments

Filed under Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty

36 responses to “In The Spotlight: Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies

  1. I read this a week or two ago and thought it was terrific. The issue of domestic violence was very well handled. But thank goodness, my daughter’s school was not like this!

    • I thought that issue was handled quite well, too, Christine. And I’m very glad you enjoyed the novel. I honestly can’t say that my daughter’s school was like this, either. But I do know from my years in the education world that there are plenty of schools that are this way. It’s hard on everyone, I think.

  2. I liked this book a lot. Brought up interesting issues and handled them well.

  3. A great reminder of a book I loved! I enjoyed the way she used humour to keep the overall tone fairly light even though some dark subjects are addressed. And I loved Madeline’s character – the way she behaved almost as a mother to the younger mothers. At least today my TBR is safe… 🙂

    • Yes, it is, FictionFan 🙂 – So I am in no way responsible for any additions you may mention on your next edition of TBR Thursday 😉 I agree with you that Moriarty does a very effective job of adding just the right light touch here and there, so as to keep the novel from getting too dark. And yes, Madeline is a great character. One of the other things I like about her is the real-life relationship she has with her daughter, Abigail. It rings true, and has the right balance of tension and softness, if that makes sense.

  4. There is an interesting, and very frequently needed hint at the differences between image, what it seems to be like, and reality aka what it is for real. Combined with the sadness, or more openly problems, we all learn to know, sooner or later, that is pretty mature.

    While I learned that burdens in the psychological or emotional department can blind each of us to the reality behind the presented image or facade the context of crime fiction allows us to define motives by it, which allows much character depth, and very thrilling culprits…

    • There is, indeed, a difference between image and reality, Andrè. We learn to look behind the image as we mature, and that difference certainly makes for solid plot lines in crime novels.

      • I had the sad moment of shock, when a scientifically trained woman at work failed to realize that she is unable to realize that there is anything beyond ‘the image’… So I do appreciate the reply, but still it triggers memories I wrestle with occasion… 😉

  5. Pingback: In The Spotlight: Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies | e. michael helms

  6. Way back in the dark ages when I attended school (in the U.S.), BEFORE the Federal Government stepped in and began asserting their (unconstitutional) powers over the individual State and local education of the school systems, such scenarios were rarely heard of. In those days schools still meted out corporal punishment (I remember those paddles well). Heck, if a student didn’t apply himself, he might even fail his current grade and be held back to repeat the grade the next year while his friends moved on the the next higher grade. And as for the big, bad horrible ogre of bullying, we (the students) tended to work that out among ourselves by meeting after school to settle our differences by good old fashioned fisticuffs. And guess what? The corporal punishment; the “failing” of a student; and the kid-to-kid settling of bullying actually worked! I suppose I’m an antiquated old fool in the eyes of the modern politically correct where everybody is a winner on the playground; everybody wins a trophy; we mustn’t bully one another because little Johnny or Suzie will be damaged for life if the school doesn’t step in and protect them from it, etc, ad nauseam.
    All I know is that the old fashioned ways worked in my day, while today we have counselors on call to ease every little imagined hurt little Johnny or Suzy might have experienced when things didn’t go their way. Poor babies. Pseudo-Science and coddling have taken a tremendous toll on today’s “it’s not MY fault” generation of youth. End of rant!
    –Michael

    • Your comments highlight a real debate and source of tension at a lot of schools, Michael. What is the school’s responsibility? What role should parents play? What should schools’ and teachers’ roles be? Those are not easy questions, and Moriarty addresses some of them here.

      • My biggest beef is that the Federal government should get their intruding nose out of the school system, period. Education and test scores (and REAL knowledge) have plummeted ever since the Feds stepped in to make it “all better.” This is nothing but latent BS! Our (the U.S.) nation’s students have been “dumbed down” now for decades. Our children are learning basically zilch about certain subjects (civics and history come to mind). “No child left behind” they brag, but an entire generation(s) is paying the price, and thus, so is our nation.

        • Big Little Lies doesn’t really address the question of the government’s relationship with schools, Michael. Rather, its focus is more the school as a community, and what the responsibilities are of parents and teachers. Even more, it uses the school as a context for exploring the relationships among the three main ‘character families.’ If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  7. I do hope to try books by this author sometime soon, Margot. This one sounds interesting.

  8. Col

    Another one to consider if the time allows, which it probably won’t. You do make it sound interesting. There was the equivalent of the “blonde bob” posse at the school’s my children attended, we called them the groovy gang.

    • ‘The Groovy Gang’ is quite the name, Col! I think a lot of schools have groups like that, and they can really make life at school annoying. If you do read this one, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  9. Very curious about this one, not least for the location – I do have a problem with anything that puts kids in jeopardy in a story though Margot …

    • That’s an interesting point, Sergio, and one I should have addressed in the post, so thanks. Like you, I don’t care much for books where children are in danger. I can say without spoiling the novel that none of the children is abducted, and there aren’t brutal scenes involving kids. As far as the location goes, it’s nicely done, I think, and gives an interesting perspective on that part of Australia.

  10. This is a book I’ve long had my sights on, not least because I was part of the PTA and was in equal measure fascinated and terrorised by the schoolyard mafia (long blond hair rather than bobs, but similar).

    • I love that term, Marina Sofia – ‘schoolyard mafia.’ That’s an apt description. And I know just what you mean about being both fascinated by and afraid of that group. With your PTA experience, I think you’ll find the setting and context for this one really familiar. If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  11. I haven’t read this, but it sounds like one I’d enjoy. Thanks for the spotlight, Margot.

  12. The Blonde Bobs…hilarious! It sounds like although the book deals with some serious issues it also has a bit of humor. Is this true, or am I misreading?

    • It is true, Sue. The book does have some very sad moments, and addresses some tough issues. But as you say, Moriarty adds in a light touch here and there. And I agree about the Blond Bobs – really funny!

  13. kathyd

    Hmmm. I haven’t read any of Moriarty’s books, but I was going to try The Husband’s Secret first. And a new book is being advertised. So, I’ll have to decide which book to read.
    And as for schools, I wish there was a national curriculum here in the States. Distorted “history” is taught in some states, especially in the South, where important events such as slavery are glossed over; textbooks don’t tell the truth of leave out important facts; some fiction is banned in schools; and science is not really taught.
    When I saw a PBS special about two teenagers in an Eastern Kentucky public high school, I was horrified to see that evolution is not taught. In fact, the “science” teacher didn’t believe in it, so the students didn’t.
    One solution could be a national science curriculum, among other things.
    And I am for getting all violence out of the schools by authorities or students – it’s not needed and is harmful.

    • You know, Kathy, I wasn’t sure at first whether I was going to spotlight this book or The Husband’s Secret, so I know what you mean about now knowing which one to read first. If you get to this one, I hope you’ll enjoy it. And you raise an interesting point about a national curriculum. The question of whether we should have one is a real source of debate, and I don’t think the answers are easy.

  14. I’m a big fan of Moriarty’s, and so yes, I really enjoyed this one. Having had children in school in the USA and the UK, and then reading about Australia – it’s great to know that there are huge differences in education systems, but also many similarities. And people can be the same the whole world over – for good and for bad. I found Moriarty’s observations to be spot on and very very funny.

    • I thought so, too, Moira. And it is interesting, isn’t it, how similar schools and the people who spend time in them can be, no matter where they are. One of the things I like about this book is that Moriarty takes all of this to the human level, so that you really do follow along with the stories of these three families.

  15. As a college professor, believe me that helicopters exist, and they are the worst. In the U.S., there are FERPA laws (basically, they say that no one but the student, the professor, and certain administrative types can see the student’s grades and know about their performance in the classroom). However, helicopter parents believe they have a right to talk to the professors, access grades, and know their children’s activities, including if they’ve visited the college health clinic. I know at the University of Notre Dame, parents will contact the help desk and demand to know their children’s passwords. Sorry, no dice. It’s a federal law. Parents make the argument that if they’re paying tuition, they have a right to know grades. People for that paying for their kid’s tuition, believe it or not, is not law of sorts. It’s a lovely gift, and you can’t demand things in return for the gift. Parents can nicely ask their children to see grades, and if the kid wants the parent to keep paying tuition, they probably should! But parents can’t talk to me (the professor) or ask me or the school for grades.

    • I’m a professor, too, GtL. I couldn’t agree more about the ‘helicopter parent’ syndrome. I’ve seen it myself, even among parents of undergraduate seniors and graduate students. As you say, the federal privacy laws protect student information, but there are certainly parents who choose not to acknowledge that.

      • Ah! For some reason I didn’t think you were in the U.S.! What do you teach? I do comp, creative writing, and contemporary literature.

        • Ah, I’d give eyeteeth to do those courses, GtL. I teach in my university’s teacher preparation program, with my focus on preparing teachers of language, English, writing, and content area literacy.

  16. All that (your review) sounds fine, Margot, but is it a mystery? Sounds more like a straight fiction novel in which a “tragedy” occurs.

    • Interesting question, Richard (and thanks for the kind words). I would say that yes, it is a mystery in the sense that we don’t know exactly who is killed (there is a death) or why until close to the end of the novel. That said, though, it’s certainly not a traditional mystery the way a ‘whodunit’ is usually constructed.

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