Nine Perfect Strangers
By Liane Moriarty, Flatiron Books, 453 pages, $28.99
At least Liane Moriarty’s new novel pampers her fans with its escapist premise. Wouldn’t it be nice to spend 10 days deliquescing at a spa named Tranquillum House, which sounds like a flower crossed with a state of bliss? That’s what the Nine Perfect Strangers of Moriarty’s latest book do, oblivious to even the most obvious warning signs.
So what if Tranquillum House has a grand staircase just like the one on the Titanic? So what if its proprietress is a little severe? The break with ordinary life promises to be refreshingly complete. The staff is spookily attentive and has aloe vera right at hand to treat even the visiting romance writer’s paper cut.
The writer, a gimlet-eyed blonde named Frances Welty, has fallen for the same pitch that lured the other eight: How about an “exclusive 10-Day Mind and Body Total Transformation Retreat”? Moriarty’s fans, who must have noticed Agatha Christie’s influence on her work by now, will realise that these strangers are agreeing to be locked up together, a la the crew in Christie’s And Then There Were None. At the very least, they will experience the alarm and sadism that Moriarty manages to combine with creature comforts.
As the author ticks off a chapter for each character, there is the dread that Nine Perfect Strangers will unfold methodically and not all that excitingly. The daily meditation, diet and exercise routines are chronicled down to each mandatory smoothie. The proprietress’ grandiose ideas about what she will do for her guests take up significant space, too. People duck each other at first, then begin talking way too much about the problems that brought them to Tranquillum — and there is no limit to the number of subplots Moriarty is eager to cram into a single book. Some of the problems are tragic (lost children; yes, that’s plural). Others (an addiction to cosmetic surgery, the miseries of winning the lottery) are silly beyond belief.
But there’s more going on here than just confessional chatter. Moriarty has tapped into a trendy therapeutic topic that gives her book its novelty. It should stimulate her fan base’s curiosity, and it gives this otherwise bland book an excuse to go way off the deep end. And it brings out the most extreme behaviour in everyone present, especially Masha, the proprietress, who was none too stable to begin with. Not even the Buddha gets out of Nine Perfect Strangers without sounding slightly menacing once the book hits its temporary insanity phase. (“Ardently do today what must be done. Who knows? Tomorrow death comes.”)
At least Moriarty quickly abandons her slow rollout of characters and days and lets the scene at Tranquillum begin to jell on its own. Frances is by far the best of the bunch, even if at 52 she thinks about menopausal hot flashes a lot. Her career writing bodice-rippers began with something called “Nathaniel’s Kiss,” its hero “a heady mix of Mr Rochester and Rob Lowe.” Somehow, she got away with that for a long time. But two husbands and a lot of books later, she’s washed up and at an impasse. Still, she has a writer’s gift for bestowing colourful nicknames on all this story’s other characters and deeming herself the central figure.
“It’s all about me,” she says at one very odd moment. “I’m just not sure of my love interest yet.”
Rest assured that there are candidates for that honour. Moriarty didn’t put this book together to send everyone home as unfulfilled and wretched as they started. Each person reveals why he or she is so enraged, vain, sulky, frustrated, disappointed and so on. And if all it took were the Titanic staircase and a few stiff hikes to turn lives around, what an inspiring story this would be. Unfortunately, Moriarty is so wildly out of control that the same book that emphasises wellness also includes one character’s healthy smack at another with an antique candelabra.
After the huge success of Big Little Lies, Moriarty has become a Hollywood darling despite the uneven calibre of her earlier work, and Nicole Kidman is already involved in a film version of Nine Perfect Strangers. She fits the physical description of the exotically beautiful 6-foot Masha, but it will be interesting to see if she wants to play anyone quite so ... challenging. In any case, this book won’t lend itself as easily to screen adaptation, since such odd things happen to such fundamentally uninteresting people. Moriarty’s books are usually more firmly anchored in the tangible world.
In the early scenes at Tranquillum, the inmates —that is, the guests — are taught how to do things mindfully. Nothing new here, but Moriarty duly explains it all to the non-mindful among us. They must cut their food into tiny bites and chew those bites repeatedly. They must walk slowly and thoughtfully. And you need to read these pages slowly and repeatedly, though not by design. Unlike most of her other books, this one struggles to get any momentum going, to the point where you may glaze over instead of eagerly leaping in. That’s not like Liane Moriarty. She can usually be counted on for a seductive, gossipy, insightful story without the contrivances that keep Nine Perfect Strangers so flabby and unwell.
–New York Times News Service