This is a powerful novel resembling Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl”, Gill Hornby’s “The Hive” and Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go Bernadette”, in that “Big Little Lies” also examines the interactions of women across philosophical and economic landscapes as well as the issues they confront in their normal lives. Told with subtle injections of humor, it revolves around a murder investigation, but that is merely the packaging for a book that confronts relationships of all kinds. Self image, bullying, domestic abuse and the nature of the secrets that allow this dysfunctional behavior to thrive and flourish are some of the topics explored. Although men are also abused in some cases, this story is mostly about the women and children who experience, suffer from or witness someone being abused, without understanding the causes or the effects. The often unseen and underlying reasons for the abuse are exposed. The character development is precise and very detailed making it easy to picture them as living, breathing human beings whose secrets and lies often portended varying degrees of cruelty as well as joy.
This author seems to depict men as morally weaker and more unprepared for fatherhood and its responsibility until long after a woman finds her niche, although many women are portrayed as quite shallow. Except for one character, Tom, portrayed as strong minded, but compassionate, willing to stand up for what he believes is right, the gay owner of the local charming coffee shop, Blue Blues, most of the men were either too easily duped, too easily controlled, too easily prone to violence, or too easily corrupted. On the social scene, they preferred not to get too involved, but rather they presented a “face” to the world, whereas most women proudly thrust their own “face” and opinions right out there.
The story revolves around a young woman’s evening of terror. Not even 20 years old, suffering from a broken heart, she goes with a stranger to his room and gets more than she bargained for; a man who seems like he is fun and polished, sophisticated and kind, is instead cruel and punishing in his behavior toward her, taking advantage of her youth, her weakness and her fear. From that one abusive night, a well-loved child is born. Jane had been told that having a child would be almost impossible for her, so she chose not to terminate a pregnancy which might be the only one she would ever have. Five years later, as her son Ziggy is preparing to enter kindergarten, she moves to a lovely, little beach town, and there, although the trauma begins to fade, she also experiences the fear that her son might have inherited the cruel streak of his father. Suddenly Ziggy is accused of bullying another child at the kindergarten orientation, setting off a pattern of events which do not show the mothers in the kindest light. They are themselves, gossips and bullys and their self-righteousness takes on a life of its own as they take sides in the developing conflict. In spite of this, Jane makes new friends, romantic feelings begin to stir within her once more and she feels happy.
There is so much misdirection surrounding this murder mystery that the reader will be utterly surprised by the conclusion. Until the end, even the name of the supposed murder victim is unknown, as well as the circumstances surrounding the crime. It really kept me guessing and involved. All the reader knows is that the story takes place around a police investigation of a murder that took place on Trivia Night, a huge fundraiser for the Pirriwee public school. The author used an unusual method to inform the reader about the deep concerns, often bitter feelings and also the petty gossip the women discussed, by including little tidbits of dialogue and snippets of conversation between minor characters that seemed to be observing and/or participating in the events, from the outside looking in, rather than becoming truly active participants in the story. Through the comments and thoughts of the different characters, we come to know their personal stories, their pain, their secrets and their triumphs.
The common school age issues, like competition and even lice, are treated with authenticity. The backbiting of the parents surely takes place in many schools. The issues that arise with teenage children are confronted overtly with the choices of Madeline’s daughter Abigail, who is going through a rebellious phase, identifying with her father’s wife who is more of a quiet ”earth mother” and yoga queen, as opposed to her own mother who is very outspoken and kind, but is also materialistic and very conscious of her appearance and the social scene. Although teens are often motivated by altruistic motives, their lack of real world experience often makes it difficult for them to understand fully, the ramifications and consequences of their actions, and so they often make faulty judgments.
I have some questions as to the credibility of some events in the story, like the convoluted confluence of some, but mostly it was believable, because in the end, the story’s conclusion is satisfactory and complete. Adults and children both mess up; some are misguided and often misjudged, while others are excused and forgiven when they should be reprimanded and even ostracized. Some can hide their guilt by living with secrets and some can present a false face so effectively that no one will suspect that things are not as they appear. The parents seem to instigate, manipulate, feign innocence, and above all else, protect their own images because they were overwhelmingly concerned with superficial causes and maintaining a “perfect” front for their peers.