By: Mari Civilini (@mcivilini)
Liane Moriarty has made her fortune juggling rotating, flawed casts of characters amid interesting backdrops. Her formula worked wonders for Big Little Lies, allowing for the creation of a noir-adjacent world in an affluent suburb that was hard to escape either as a reader or as a viewer of the excellent HBO television adaptation. In Nine Perfect Strangers, Moriarty tries again, but the end product falls short of brilliant. Rather than focusing on presenting literary depth, it seems written by an author who is, at minimum, acutely aware of her wildly successful television series. It feels flat, as if written with an eye kept trained toward the silver screen where it will ultimately find its correct home at Hulu under the capable Nicole Kidman, Per Saari, and Bruna Papandrea.
The plot relies on a tried-and-true premise: a handful of strangers meet at an isolated location where their stays are disturbed by unforeseen dark events. Here, the location is Tranquillum House, an expensive health retreat in the middle of the Australian wilderness that would check off every item in any millennial’s list for such a place: yoga in a dark cave for centering, green smoothies for health, massages for self-care. There is a charismatic and beautiful leader, named Masha, and a faithful, subordinate worker who would die for her. Describing the events that transpire and cause turmoil spoils the main reason for reading the book. Suffice it to say that with great charisma comes great imbalance.
Nine Perfect Strangers’ biggest flaw lies in the characters themselves. They are stereotypical, mostly unlikable, and dull. Even the story’s great villain is overblown, with the plot feeling farcical rather than scary. Other than Masha, our main character is Frances, a bumbling romance novelist who is routinely unlucky in her choice of men. Spoiler alert, she finds love at the retreat. The other eight strangers are just as insipid: from the too-handsome gay man who is afraid of committing to having a child with the spouse he adores to the seemingly perfect suburban family badly grieving a loss. I was never tricked into thinking that I could meet any of these characters at a supermarket, and it made my literary experience disappointing.
I kept reading because I wanted my initial reactions to be proved wrong and for each page to be better than the last. Instead, I consistently laughed in the wrong places and cringed at the characters’ internal monologues. I rolled my eyes more than once. What the novel has going for it, more than anything else, is that the reader can imagine the television show version of the story unfolding as they read. With subtle acting, great cinematography, and a solid script, much can be made of this tale. The book acts merely a summary of the art that will be brought to life on-screen.
That Nine Perfect Strangers never quite reaches its potential as a novel is a shame. Moriarty clearly has it in her and we’ve seen the premise do so well in other hands that all I want to do is take the story down ten notches and sub in a couple of chaotic stragglers to make it work. I’m waiting for the show – if done well it’ll be spectacular.
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