If you sell enough books, or enough movie tickets, or designer scents, you get at least one free pass. With Nine Perfect Strangers, on the back of the dual number one New York Times bestsellers Big Little Lies and Truly Madly Guilty and the HBO adaptation of the former, Liane Moriarty has published her free pass. Because really, what is Nine Perfect Strangers? You can read it from cover to cover without being entirely sure. There is something here, but it becomes buried under the extraneous compost that Moriarty tosses about with abandon.
Nine Perfect Strangers chronicles the experience of nine people of varied – albeit fairly affluent – backgrounds as they attend a ten day health retreat at Tranquillum House, six hours drive from Sydney. With guests ranging from former best-selling novelist Frances Welty, the dysfunctional Marconi family, and recently minted multi-millionaires Ben and Jessica, they all have their reasons for visiting Tranquillum, and spa director Masha Dimitchenko has very specific ideas for their treatment.
The health spa concept is versatile, and Moriarty could have made anything happen there. For about half of the book, she’s happy to let her characters pootle around, filling in their backstories and allowing them to bounce off each other in near total “Noble Silence”. This is fine, because Moriarty has a handle on each of her characters, and several chapters in these early stages are remarkably affecting and sensitively written. Then, for lack of a better word, plot happens. And it is bizarre.
Nine Perfect Strangers hinges on an event that changes everything, and not for the better. If previously the novel had felt like Moriarty had ideas for several stories and she couldn’t commit to one so she just threw the component characters together in a justifiable setting, suddenly it has a tonal lurch that is neither satisfactorily set up or resolved. The mess that Nine Perfect Strangers becomes is difficult to reconcile, and the constant shifts between relative sanity on one side of the story and completely off-the-wall contrivance on the other become exhausting. There’s no compulsive element to finding out what happens next because you get to the point of not strictly wanting to know how outlandish it is going to become. It’s silly but it’s not entertainingly silly, and this is a vitally important distinction for any story in any genre.
And Nine Perfect Strangers is a novel desperately in search of a genre. There is a strong streak of metatextual commentary throughout, and it is mostly amusing. Frances is a romance novelist a mere year older than Moriarty at the time of publication, she reads literary crime fiction that she can tell is heavy hitting because the dialogue is delivered without inverted commas, and she complains of novels that introduce too many characters and refuse to kill any of them off. If murder had been on the menu, Nine Perfect Strangers may have turned out better than it did, because wanting something to happen does not mean you want anything to happen.
This is disappointing, because Nine Perfect Strangers tries to rally for its ending, but Moriarty has squandered any good will that the reader may have felt towards her or her characters. Character studies are a solid basis for a novel, but the outlandishness and tin-eared satire take away so much of what Nine Perfect Strangers ever offered the reader.
Liane Moriarty wrote Nine Perfect Strangers because she could, and it hit shelves because it would sell. There’s no elevator pitch for a book as strange as this one, and there’s no charm backing up that strangeness. Nine little stories could have added up to a bigger one, but there is a black hole at the core of Nine Perfect Strangers that takes away almost every positive that Moriarty has to offer. If you can survive the “twist”, this is a book that will offer wan rewards, but it’s difficult to feel good about it in the final analysis.