These two literary novels both feature a seaside suburban setting, with tribes of women discussing their big little lies and tawdry secrets, so I thought of pairing them together here.
Written by Linda Rosenkrantz
Published by NYRB Classics (2015, first published 1968)
ISBN: 1590178440 (ISBN13: 9781590178447). Bought a copy of the book. Book quotes layout via Typorama.
The premise of the book sounds interesting. It is progressive for an experimental novel originally published in the late 60s (1968 to be precise) based on the author’s audio-recorded conversations with friends while spending the summer in a beach in East Hampton. There are the girlfriends Marsha (who is described to have a ‘serious job in New York’) and Emily (an actress who likes to par-tay) and their gay friend Vincent, the seeming object of Marsha’s unrequited affection.
I struggled a fair bit with this NRYB title. I had high hopes for it, but the pure dialogue with very little context and backstory about the three friends made me feel a certain distaste as I eavesdrop on their discussions about their psychotherapy sessions, sex life, childhood memories that their middle class suburban sensibilities find to be traumatic, and a minute parsing of their life choices and the many lovers that they have had, the many authors they know, the clever books they are reading.
It was a pretty self-absorbed book with unsympathetic characters who are so self-involved and convinced of their own beauty and intelligence – that it failed to become absorbing enough a read. The dialogue felt contrived – as if the friends were performing for an unseen audience, whom they know will be the eventual readers of this book project that the author is doing. There was very little discernible growth, or enlightened responses, or hard-won realizations even up to the very end of the book. It was all just, as the title indicated, talk that was meandering, needlessly-argumentative, and self-indulgent, while utterly convinced of its own significance.
Big Little Lies
Written by Liane Moriarty
Published by Penguin (2015, first published 2014)
ISBN: 1405916362 (ISBN13: 9781405916363). Literary Awards: Davitt Award for Best Adult Novel (2015), Australian Book Industry Award (ABIA) Nominee for General Fiction (2015), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction (2014). Bought a copy of the book. Book quotes layout via Typorama.
Unlike the first book, this was an absorbing read that kept me up at night, turning the pages. This is pretty remarkable, as (1) I need sleep and hoard it as much as I possibly can (2) I have already seen the TV series before reading the book, so I can sort of anticipate how the story would go and where the narrative would lead. Yet, despite my knowledge of the plot, the story felt fresh, remained riveting, with incredible pacing and build-up.
I enjoyed seeing how the book-story diverged from what I have seen on TV. But the female dynamics was strong, the friendships credible, and the self-flagellation and insecurities very real – with a layer that provided a deeper perspective, even while it tried to not take itself too seriously.
This is highlighted clearly in Madeline’s character (played by Reese Witherspoon) who, on the surface, seemed like your quintessential shallow mean girl, yet imbued with a surprising complexity and depth to her. When single mother Jane asked those questions in the image above, Madeline was horrified – because for her that would indeed signal the end of the world. And to have that acknowledged so casually in the book was just delightful, and at the same time, painfully tragic – and real.
Renata also deserves a special mention here. While she was not as drawn out in the novel, the TV series depicted her as needling and annoying, deliberately downplaying her power and influence even while she was flaunting it for every woman to be envious about and throwing it in their faces that she is the quintessential superwoman. The fact that she needed to hold back and can never be truly her magnificent self because she was concerned about how the other mothers regard her was the most perturbing part for me.
Among all the characters, it was Abigail I liked the least. I applaud her earnestness, good intentions, tiny acts of rebellion – yet it was just so mind-blowingly misguided that I wanted to tear all her golden hair out from her privileged little head.
Yet, the dynamics between Madeline-Abigail-Bonnie was so fraught – with its ouroboros twist endlessly chasing its tail, never really breaking out of the cycle of blame, adulation, guilt, resentment.
The Celeste storyline, however, riveted me. While watching the TV series, it was what captivated me and left me out of breath. The scale of the abuse, the justifications for Perry’s violence, and Celeste’s refusal to call herself a victim, mainly because she does not fit the profile of the abused suburban housewife – would make any reader think.
The way the women came together in the end was gratifying and intelligently crafted. It glowingly depicted a pack of females having each others’ backs despite their squabbles and insecurities and animosity, making this one of my favourite reads this year. While on the surface, it seemed more like a light and fluffy read, and it does read that way, I feel that it has the potential to reach a great many women who need to hear its resolve, clear-sightedness, and ultimate power.
#WomenReadWomen2019: Linda Rosenkrantz is from the United States.
Liane Moriarty is from Australia.
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