Dress Down Sunday: Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty


published 2018




Nine Perfect Strangers 1


It was dawn at Tranquillum House. The fifth day of the retreat. Napoleon parted the wild horse’s mane three times both sides. He enjoyed the soft swooping moves of t’ai chi, and this was one of his favourite moves, although he heard his knees crunch like a tyre on gravel as he bent his legs. His physio said it was nothing to worry about: people Napoleon’s age crunched. It was just middle-aged cartilage.




Yao led this morning’s class in the rose garden, quietly and calmly naming each move for the nine guests who stood in a semicircle around them, all wearing their green Tranquillum Nine Perfect Strangers 3House dressing-gowns. People seemed to be wearing the robes more often than not now. On the horizon behind Yao, two hot-air balloons ascended so slowly above the vineyards it looked like a painting.


commentary: I like to keep a little collection of incomprehensible sentences (I will do a blogpost one day **), and this one will join it:
Napoleon parted the wild horse’s mane three times both sides.
Though, fair play, Moriarty makes it instantly clear what it means, and we already know that Napoleon is a guest at a spa, not either a French Emperor or a pig from Animal Farm.

This is a confounding and great book. The publishers’ tagline is this:

One house. Nine strangers. Ten days that will change everything . . .

And it is a great setup – these people are all attending a health/wellness spa retreat, in the middle of nowhere, in Australia. So in one sense you know what kind of book this is, but in another you really don’t. I’m hamstrung writing about it, because part of the enormous enjoyment I got from it was that I had absolutely no idea in which direction it was heading. I’ve read many Liane Moriarty books, so I knew it would be funny, have pitch perfect observations, and might have a crime/thriller element, and would definitely contain surprises. And really it’s best to leave it like that, and let readers find out for themselves.

I think the setting is original: Old-style health farms and hydros turn up in books set or written in the past (and yes of course we have featured them on the blog), but it's surprisingly uncommon for a modern setting, and just asking to be exploited...

Moriarty is such a talented writers that she introduces the characters perfectly. I usually hate too many characters, and abhor books in which they are at first introduced by description, names only revealed later – but she gets away with it, completely failed to annoy me.

The descriptions of the place and the activities are hilarious and sharp and very recognizable – I have been on a retreat which (in some ways only… ) resembled this one, and her descriptions are spot-on and hilarious.

I liked Frances the middle-aged writer being told that by the end of the retreat she would be saying ‘I am changed in ways I could never have imagined.’

What a load of crap, thought Frances, while simultaneously thinking, Please let it be true.

The participants want the spa to solve all their problems – mental issues, bereavements and romantic disasters, depressions and misery. And make them thinner. But – and this is so true to life – when these rich, pampered people miss one meal they start going berserk, and can’t stop talking about it. This is strange behaviour on about three different levels, and is absolutely spot on: that is how people react.

The book of course brings you the backstories, and Moriarty writes extraordinarily well about the kind of problems and horrors that can hit the nicest families – I already admired her very much, but was very impressed with her discussion of addiction and bereavement in what was essentially not a heavyweight novel: completely real, and convincing, and actually helpful.

And her little comments along the way – here a husband overhears a comment by his wife which ‘hurt because it was both a malicious lie and the shameful truth’:
He could find hatred in his heart for [his wife] too, if he went looking for it. The secret of a happy marriage was not to go looking for it.
There is an intensely clever counterpoint of tension and creepiness in the plot, the growing sense of something very wrong, but in the kind of way that happens in novels, versus the genuine feeling, and sadness, and bereavement. I don’t know of anyone who does exactly that as well as Liane Moriarty, and this is a prime example of her marvellous books.

Highly recommended.

For more of Liane Moriarty, click here.

** The Guest Blogger found an excellent difficult sentence for this recent post

He spoke some of the sifting history did.

(It is possible to work out what it means... )

Here’s one I’ve been treasuring for years, from a literary novel of 1988, set in contemporary London, explaining how two people met:
‘Apparently she’s broke, she went to a vernissage, mostly for something to eat, got picked up by one of those wide-boys with a line in new masters of frigates in the spume, and, to cut a long story, woke up in the chambers opposite Tertius’s.’
 Thirty years later – no, still no idea.

If you have a good literary incomprehensible sentence, please do send it to me.
























Comments

  1. I'm very glad you enjoyed this, Moira. I keep hearing such good things about it. It's been on my radar for a bit now, and I think I need to move it to the wish list. You're so right about Moriarty, too. She does have an keen eye for observation, and a solid sense of wit. That alone makes it worth reading her work. But she also has plenty of surprises, too.

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    1. Thanks Margot - I think she is a marvellous writer, witty and clever but with great depth and a great kindness of heart.

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  2. Oh alright, Moira. You knew I'd have to read this. And just when the TBR pile was looking as if it might be manageable one day. You do it on purpose, don't you?

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    1. Yes, well, pot and kettle here! but I promise you - this is a quick read because you just really want to know what's going on...

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    2. Well, now, I have read it - couldn't put it down. She is such a clever writer and a compassionate one, too.

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    3. Oh great! Always tricksy, recommending. But yes, and glad you pointed out the compassion. A good and generous heart I always think, whatever weirdness she is writing about.

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  3. ""She went to the opening of an exhibition in a private gallery - there are always canapes. There she got picked up by some chancer flogging 'ye olde' paintings of 18th and 19th century ships, probably painted yesterday in a warehouse in Stepney. Briefly, she woke up in Albany, opposite Tertius."

    "Parting the horse's mane" is a Tai Chi move!

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    1. I do give her credit for making clear about the horse's mane!

      Thanks for excellent translation. I had looked up 'vernissage' and worked out some of the sentence over the years, but have only just realized that it is 'new masters' (as opposed to 'old masters') - I always thought it was 'new masters of frigates' = portraits of newly-promoted captains. Wisdom has been slow in coming to me.

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  4. Well, I read your difficult sentence and it instantly reminded me of a house I shared in Cambridge a very long time ago. Mid 1980s. And do you know, one of the inmates was a wide eyed boy with a line in new masters, not of frigates in the spume (not even that classy) but of languishing nudes and oranges, and multi coloured rivers with with uncivilly engineered bridges that never would hold up. They were commissioned and painted with colour schemes to match his client's living rooms. Haven't the faintest idea what a vernissage is though.

    I must track down Liane Moriarty now, thank you.

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    1. Fascinating! And see comment above for my realization about 'new masters'. Vernissage means 'an event to touch up the varnish on the exhibited pictures' apparently, but has morphed into just being a private view.
      I feel you and I could bond here (as with so many things) - I never quite felt I was up on the 1980s: I had a good job, nice life etc, but was constantly being confronted with a kind of person and life that I simply didn't understand, that I had never come across. 'These peoples' lives!' I used to say to myself. This sentence seemed to sum it up, now and then.

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  5. This sounds terrific - thanks, Moira, I'll seek it out.

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    1. She is a very funny, very good writer, who writes about real people - so obviously is wildly under-rated in my important view... I think you will like her.

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  6. I think this is the first Liane Moriarty book that sounds attractive to me. (Although possibly The Husband's Secret.) Of course not available here right now so I will wait. It is not like I will run out of things to read in the meantime.

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    1. No you won't! It is not a straightforward crime book, but it is very entertaining and intricate.

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  7. I wish I had enjoyed this book more - I think Liane Moriarty is a superb writer, and I have read all of her books. I think that this book was more like a screen play with its emphasis on the visual and the plot veering from fantastical to almost grotesque at times. Done properly it could make a compelling movie, but as a book it lacked that Moriarty magic for me at least.

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    1. Oh that's very interesting - I can see it was a very strange book, and actually I can see what you mean: it worked for me, but not for everyone. And yes, very movie-shaped - did you note that Nicole Kidman is clearly interested?

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  8. Probably not one for me, but somewhat spookily I'm trying to find a local tai chi class for me and the better half!

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    1. Well I sincerely hope you don't have all the excitements of the people in the book...

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