Friday, May 15, 2015

Big Little Lies: My take on the book that's bringing Nicole Kidman & Reese Witherspoon to our TV screens

I didn't plan it this way but both of the last two novels I read turned out to be set in Australia, though at opposite ends of the country and separated by almost 100 years. Big Little Lies, last summer's big hit from by Liane Moriarty, is a contemporary piece set in Pirriwee Peninsula, a fictional beachside suburb just north of Sydney where I'm dying to move right this minute. The Light Between Oceans, M.L. Stedman's 2012 debut, is a gripping piece of historical fiction set against the backdrop of post World War I trauma, and takes place on the fictional island of Janus Rock just off the southwestern coast of Australia. Both books are bound for screen adaptations; Big Little Lies is coming to HBO as a limited series with Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon attached while Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander star in The Light Between Oceans heading to your local movie house this fall.  Let's dig into Big Little Lies and cover The Light Between Oceans in another post.


Oh this book! It's set in Australia, yes, and in a fictional place that I'm casing out online—that's Manly Beach above—but I'll bet lots of you know the parents of Pirriwee Public school from your own volunteer days with your kid's elementary school and the big mucky-mucks at your PTA. Who knew that Aussies were so much like Americans? Except for saying mums instead of moms, and the charming 'kindy' for kindergarten, and a few other minimally invasive terms, these women and their husbands are just like our US helicopter parents, and I'm betting, the rest of the world's micro-managing brand of mothers and fathers too! 


Liane Moriarty perfectly captures that world and those varied voices, hilariously representing the gulf between the usual suspects, warring factions like the moms who wanted all sugary treats banned from the school completely and the parents who not only brought in cupcakes to their kid's class on their birthdays but one-upped the rest of us by baking a couple of extra dozen to drop off in the office and the teacher's lounge, making sure everyone in the school got a cupcake for Bobby's birthday. Every type you've ever met is sketched out in exquisite detail; Moriarty must have walked around with a tape recorder running.

Funny and loaded with snark, there's also a deep, dark ugliness at the core of Big Little Lies. The book begins with the revelation that something has happened at Trivia Night, a much-anticipated school fundraiser. Mrs. Ponder, the old lady who lives across the street from the school notes 'the Pirriwee Public parents were misbehaving'.  Indeed. The chapter ends, as all the chapters end, with a variety of quotes from the school's parent body, each weighing in, in pithy and hilarious fashion, often in direct contradiction to each other, on exactly what's at the root of the goings on. The last voice in that first chapter belongs to Detective-Sergeant Adrian Quinlan:
Let me be clear: This is not a circus. This is a murder investigation.  
Actually it does feel like a circus, funny and familiar but just like a circus, there's a big, fat elephant in the room. Read the book to find out what it is. After the intro chapter, Moriarty takes us back six months before the Trivia Night, to a kindergarten orientation where we meet the three major mums in the novel. 

Reese Witherspoon is a well-known fashionista, perfect for Madeline

Madeline, who has just turned forty, is a glittery girl who loves nothing more than flirty, feminine clothes, shoes and a bit of fun. She's also the maternal heart of the novel. More than the clothes and shoes, Madeline is a nurturing caretaker type who would do anything for her family and her friends. Compared to Jane and Celeste, her problems are more of the garden variety type anyone in her position would encounter. Blended, extended families have their challenges. Divorced and remarried, Madeline has a fourteen year old who prefers to spend her time with her father's new family. At the same time she has two children with her second husband, Ed. Fred, her little boy, and Chloe entering kindergarten at Pirriwee. 


Nicole Kidman, effortlessly gorgeous. Celeste?

Celeste is jaw-droopingly beautiful, half of the perfect couple and mother to a pair of high energy twin boys also entering kinder-garten. She lives a stupid-rich life of leisure courtesy of her handsome husband in a home not unlike the Sydney home of Kylie Minogue shown below. That's how I pictured it anyway. How could anyone this beautiful have problems?

This stunning ocean view Sydney home belongs to Kylie Minogue.

Jane—yet to be cast—is a 24 year old single mother who is so young she's occasionally mistaken for a nanny. When Jane's son Ziggy is accused of choking a little girl at orientation, the girl's major mucky muck mother won't let it go and the incident colors the entire year. Nervous, self-effacing, Jane struggles to be her son's advocate. My two top choices to play Jane are Emma Stone and Kristen Stewart, either would work well as the diffident, t-shirt wearing Jane, able to transform into a butterfly when necessary. 



The parent body takes sides about the alleged bullying, with misinformation brewing and bad feelings escalating until we finally, but ever so quickly, 458 pages later, arrive at Trivia Night. 

Along the way we learn that everyone and everything isn't exactly as they're made out to be, that we all have secrets and tell some big, little lies to maintain those illusions. It's fantastic, funny but also deeply, deeply moving. I cried my usual river at the end and wished I were there to hang out with this fabulous trio of women that I felt I knew from my own days as an involved school mother.

I'm a boomer baby so my parents were mostly in absentia during the day to day of my school years. Did I do my homework? They had no idea. That's how parents rolled back then. But by the time I married (late) and our little boy came of 'kindy' age, everything had changed. It was the end of the 90's, the mommy wars were in full swing, and as a then 'stay at home mom', I was Involved. Head room parent, book fair chairperson, cub scout den mother. The birthday cupcakes. The Big Boo at Halloween. The Winter Program. The Teacher Appreciation breakfast. The Volunteers Tea. The never ending fundraising. The dramas. The musicals. Field trips galore. After school classes. Elaborately themed birthday parties. I'm exhausted just remembering those days! The lives of children were run—and I suppose still are—as if they were all being prepared to be president or the next Zubin Mehta or Frank Gerhy. The stakes were high and parenting had become big and serious business. The PTA was run by a well-intentioned but occasionally off-puttingly aggressive group of high-powered moms who operated like corporate VP's, just like the women that ran Pirriwee Primary. The families with the fattest paychecks ruled the roost with their names constantly in the elementary school newsletter. Everything was political, everyone played their appointed role in the hierarchy whether it was the bizzy buzzy blondes who walked around like they owned the place or the quiet, retiring types who dropped their kids off and ran. Oh damn, I'm going off ad nauseum I know, but the book just took me all the way back, put me smack in the middle of that world, alongside the parents who made the school go round. 

I can't recommend this book highly enough and am seriously stoked that Big Little Lies will be a limited series rather than a movie. There'll be so much more time to really get to know the mothers—and fathers—of Pirriwee Public School and what goes on behind closed doors. Thanks to the success of programs like True Detective we get to see the likes of A-list stars like Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon on our 'home screening devices'.  You know I don't do stars but Moriarty's book deserves 4 shiny gold 
ones stuck neatly on a chart. 

What did you think of the book? And how about that casting; if you were the casting director, who would you bring in to read for the part of Jane?




3 comments:

  1. This is a truly wonderful and enjoyable book. It has rich characters and an intricate plot that mixes many very serious topics, without being exhausting and overbearing. I highly recommend this book to anyone.

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  2. I missed this review from months ago, but I was completely surprised by how much I loved this book. I listened to the audio, which was good. And I had heard that Reese Witherspoon was on board wearing several hats. HAve you heard yet where the film will be set?

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    1. I haven’t heard but now that Shailene Woodley has been cast as the young mother it’s gotta be the states. http://chapter1-take1.blogspot.com/2015/12/shailene-woodley-is-joining-nicole.html

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