The parents in Liane Moriarty’s darkly humorous novels are much like parents anywhere: Loving, busy, distracted, juggling their children’s needs and their own desires as they negotiate the difficulties of adult relationships, jobs and the past, which intrudes at the least convenient moment.
They live in the suburbs unaware of the dark side of human nature — or at least ignoring it — until the wily Moriarty yanks hard at the foundations they take for granted and upends their delicately balanced lives. This pattern may be tough on her characters, but for us, it’s a blast, and it has made her new novel, “Truly Madly Guilty,” one of the most anticipated books of the summer. Here’s the best news you’ve heard all year: Not a single page disappoints.
Not so long ago Moriarty, an Australian who lives in Sydney with her family, was not a household name in this country. But with her last two novels, “The Husband’s Secret” and “Big Little Lies,” she has crossed into the mainstream, and the mainstream is much better for it. In “Truly Madly Guilty,” she follows the template she perfected in “Big Little Lies” (currently being adapted as an HBO series with Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman): She hints at a cataclysmic event in the first chapter, then spends the rest of the book building up to the reveal.
In “Big Little Lies,” somebody — who? why? — ends up dead at parents’ trivia night at the local school. In “Truly Madly Guilty,” something disastrous has occurred at a backyard barbecue, and three couples are trying to pull themselves together in its wake. Clementine, a classical cellist gearing up for a big audition, and her affable husband Sam, are parents to two small daughters (the youngest carries around a whisk as a toy, named, appropriately, Whisk). Erika, Clementine’s childhood friend, and her husband Oliver are childless perfectionists, and Oliver and Erika’s neighbors Vid and Tiffany, the hosts of the gathering, are the outgoing, successful parents to 10-year-old Dakota.
Moriarty frames the story around the longtime friendship between Clementine and Erika, a difficult connection that leaves both women chafing with frustration or irritation (sometimes both). Erika had a difficult childhood, and Clementine’s mother more or less forced her daughter to befriend Erika, an obligation that still weighs heavily.
“[T]oxic was actually an accurate description of the feelings Clementine had so often felt in Erika’s presence: the intense aggravation she had to work so hard to resist and conceal, the disappointment with herself, because Erika wasn’t evil or cruel or stupid, she was simply annoying, and Clementine’s response to her annoyingness was so completely disproportionate, it embarrassed and confounded her.”
Erika, for her part, has tried to overcome her own troubled past and her problematic mother, with help from the compassionate Oliver, but she rebels against Clementine’s pity. “[F]or some reason that soft, teary look made Erika feel angry, because she already knew how lucky she was to have Oliver’s help, she already felt grateful and cherished, but Clementine’s reaction made her feel ashamed, as if Erika didn’t deserve it.”
Against this spiky backdrop, the two women and their friends and families confront the revelations and fears and guilt brought on by the calamitous barbecue. The rain falls and falls, no sunshine in sight, the weather mimicking the characters’ emotional states. The ramifications of that day seem poised to destroy so much: peace of mind, marriages, hopes and dreams for the future.
“Truly Madly Guilty” may take place on the other side of the world, but Moriarty’s sly sense of humor, vivid characters and her frank appraisal of suburban life make it clear that this barbecue could have happened anywhere, to anyone. The dilemma is universal — and irresistible. The only difficulty with “Truly Madly Guilty”? Putting it down.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.