Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (Putnam Adult, July 2014) is pure 'women's fiction.' It follows three women: Madeline, Celeste as the two old friends meet Jane and her son while attending kindergarten orientation with their own children and take her under their wing.
Moriarty builds a whole story around the dangers of keeping secrets and telling small lies. It all actually begins with a murder investigation and goes back in time to an incident that occurred at the school during kindergarten orientation. At the center of this story, and providing much of its humor, you will find 'helicopter' moms who spend most of their time micro-parenting and behaving worse than their kindergarten children at the school yard. There are 'mom cliques,' fights, malicious gossip, and petitions bandied about that affect both kids and parents. It is all done with biting humor and a healthy dose of sarcasm, but I found it all mean, petty, thoughtless, and generally detrimental to the little ones.
There are, however, other darker threads running through the story that are not humorous at all. First we have the issue of 'bullying' in school, which of course is mishandled by all adults concerned because they are too busy 'outdoing' each other and playing the judgmental card to really pay attention to the children. Second, we have a conflict between a mother and teenage daughter who decides to move in with her father and his new wife, the ex-husband who abandoned them both early on. Then, there are two 'violence against women' threads: a current 'physical abuse behind closed doors' thread that grows increasingly violent as the story unfolds, and the other a past experience with date-rape that still affects the victim deeply and as a result the victim's child.
This novel is rather tough to describe. It is bitingly humorous, but darkly so. There are moments when it is easy to laugh, particularly at the adults' ridiculous behavior -- Madeline for example has some great lines. But, the dark and violent moments are tough to read through. Moriarty portrays the abused woman's delusional state of mind, self-blame, and the progression of violence in the relationship quite well. I am, however, deeply disappointed that after all is said and done the state of her children's mental health is neglected.
And that is my main problem with this novel. It is ambitious in that it tackles multiple issues affecting women and children. Some aspects of these multiple threads are well rendered yet there is so much going on that some issues are superficially touched on while others are ignored. The narrative is well done and entertaining enough to keep readers involved. Unfortunately, the entertainment factor or light approach often takes away from the seriousness of heavier issues and vice versa. As the perfect example I will use the climactic scene, a combination comedic farce (bordering on slapstick) with dark revelations culminating in murder.
I believe that Big Little Lies will appeal to women's fiction readers who may be fans of Moriarty's light and mordant humorous approach to serious subject matter or fans of books with a similar style. I am leaving a lot of what goes on out of this post: dysfunctional children, poor parenting, a romance with a happy ending, infidelities, and more. I enjoyed a few out-loud laughs toward the beginning, before the numbing truth surfaced and those horrifying violent scenes began to trickle in. In the end I found the story to be well written with some admittedly good messages, but over-the-top and somewhat confounding.