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BOOK REVIEW: Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

| 7 October 2018 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Pan Macmillan Australia
September 2018
Paperback, $32.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Fiction / Modern & Contemporary Fiction

7.5/10

A wellness retreat may instil images of green smoothies, yoga, some crystals, and a massage. But what if this setting was hiding something more sinister? This idea is covered in Liane Moriarty’s eighth novel. Nine Perfect Strangers is a dark and humorous look at a wellness world where all is not always, ahem, ‘well.’

It seemed that in a mere ten days she would be ‘transformed’ in ways she ‘never thought possible’. There would be fasting, meditation, yoga, creative ‘emotional release exercises’. There would be no alcohol, sugar, caffeine, gluten or dairy – but as she’d just had the degustation menu at the Four Seasons she was stuffed full of alcohol, sugar, caffeine, gluten and dairy, and the thought of giving them up didn’t seem that big a deal. Meals would be ‘personalised’ to her ‘unique needs’.

Moriarty is a best-selling novelist who found fame with her books, Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret. These two previous works would best be classified as domestic noir. Nine Perfect Strangers takes a far different road by satirising the hippy-dippy wellness industry. Moriarty achieves this by writing prose that resembles an evil undercurrent bubbling away beneath the surface. This novel is all about celebrating this wild and wacky journey.

Before her booking was ‘accepted’, she had to answer a very long, rather invasive online questionnaire about her relationship status, diet, medical history, alcohol consumption in the previous week and so on. She cheerfully lied her way through it. It was really none of their business. She even had to upload a photo taken in the last two weeks. She sent one of herself from her lunch with Ellen at the Four Seasons, holding up a Bellini.
There were boxes to tick for what she hoped to achieve during her ten days: everything from ‘intensive couples counselling’ to ‘significant weight loss’. Frances ticked only the nice-sounding boxes, like ‘spiritual nourishment’.
Like so many things in life, it had seemed like an excellent idea at the time.

Some of the guests at Tranquillum House aren’t strangers at all because many have roped in their families for treatment. There is Frances, a former best-selling romance novelist who is heartbroken after falling victim to an online dating scam. She is quite outspoken and frank and is one of the most vivid characters here.

When everything was good in Frances’s life she wished both her ex-husbands nothing but happiness and excellent erectile function. Right now, she wished plagues of locusts to rain down upon their silvery heads.

Joining Frances are a young, unhappy married couple named Ben and Jessica who are recent lotto winners. There is also a family of three – including an adult daughter – all dealing with grief. A former athlete named Tony wants to lose some weight, while a separated woman has some bone-crushing self-esteem issues. And a gay character works through some mental baggage on account of his partner.

The idea for this novel is an intriguing one. It also shares a few things in common with Fearless by Fiona Higgins. The latter also portrayed a sinister side to a health retreat, although that one was set in Bali. Moriarty does an excellent job of straddling the lines between humour and tragedy, two things that she believes go hand in hand. This makes for some tense and rather gripping reading.

She must focus. Nine people were depending on her. Nine perfect strangers who would soon become like family…
She loved them already. Their self-consciousness and self-loathing, their manifest lies, their defensive jokes to hide their pain as they cracked and crumbled before her. They were hers for the next ten days, hers to teach and nurture, to shape into the people they could be, should be.

Moriarty is the queen of well-honed characters. This book has short, alternating chapters, which some of the guests offer in the first-person. The retreat staff also have a voice. They include the boss, a former corporate-flyer named Masha, her hopelessly devoted disciple, Yao, and Delilah – who is only in it for the money. There are too many perspectives and characters and it can get rather confusing at times. The cast of thousands means that some of the male characters like Lars and Napolean are underdone, and this is obvious when you compare them to Frances’s rich complexity.

Frances tried to imagine herself in ten days and found it strangely difficult, as if it wasn’t ten days but ten years she was imagining. Would she really be transformed? Thinner, lighter, pain-free, able to leap from her bed at sunrise without caffeine?

As the story progresses, Moriarty is a master craftsman working in the background increasing the tension. It’s a bit like a frog in boiling water. It’s so deceptively simple you don’t realise it is happening until it is too late. Things come to a rousing crescendo at the end but there are moments where the proceedings are a bit too over-the-top to be plausible.

Nine Perfect Strangers is another well-observed look at some complicated and idiosyncratic humans. Moriarty makes some interesting points about these well-intentioned sanctuaries and the unsuspecting souls that use them. Nine Perfect Strangers is a book that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and leaves you constantly guessing; as Moriarty the puppet-master stands in the wings pulling most of the right strings.

Natalie Salvo

Category: Book Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her websites are: http://nataliesalvo.wordpress.com and www.myshitdate.com

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