Liane Moriarty usually packs her books with dishier secrets than those that give “Truly Madly Guilty” its title. And you need to get through endless hinting, foreshadowing, stalling and chapters that end with loud noises even to find out what they are.
This Australian author’s winning formula always relies on such tactics. In her very popular “Big Little Lies,” she used them to good effect, even though the book revolved around a kindergarten. I actually missed that kindergarten while following the nonevents that go on here.
“Big Little Lies” focused on a terrible, terrible night that Moriarty used as a tease, by endlessly dropping in glimpses of it and then cutting away. It also had a full panoply of bitchy parents and nice ones, who went to war. “Truly Madly Guilty” unfolds on a much smaller scale: It’s about the day of a terrible, terrible barbecue, and features only a small group of characters. They are well delineated and saddled with various pathologies.
The author gives each character enough baggage for a world tour, even though this is just an afternoon in a showy suburban backyard in Sydney. The event happens spontaneously when Vid, a rich electrician said to look like Tony Soprano, impetuously invites his dreary next-door neighbors, Erika and Oliver, over for the day. Vid is cagey enough to know that Erika has a much more attractive friend, a cellist named Clementine. And he suggests that Clementine and her husband, Sam, come, too.
None of the guests, who include Sam and Clementine’s two young daughters, know much about their grandiose host. But the men can’t keep their eyes off his wife, “the smoking-hot Tiffany,” who is treated by Vid as one of his prized possessions. Add Vid and Tiffany’s quiet, spooky daughter, Dakota; their yappy dog; and a cranky old man, Harry, who often comes by to complain about the noise, and you have almost the full cast.
Now what life-altering event(s) could emerge from a gathering like this? It’s worth plowing through the first half of the book just to find out, even if you need to stifle an inner scream every time the author drops one of these: a reference to Clementine’s “feelings of guilt and horror over what had happened at the barbecue.” Guilt? Horror? “Like the memory of a nightmare you can’t quite get out of your head.” We also learn piquantly that “in Clementine’s mind what happened would forever be tied up with sex. Skanky, sleazy sex.” And that Clementine liked it.
As Moriarty peels her onion of a plot, we begin to see that Sam and Clementine’s suburban marriage, all but sexless, is on the rocks. And that when Erika and Oliver bring up the subject obliquely, pre-barbecue, they have lit the fuse to much more trouble than they can imagine. It hardly helps that once the barbecue gets going, Tiffany starts talking about her earlier life. She used to be a dancer. Her style of dance required a pole. It wasn’t the limbo.
Since Moriarty is now a brand-name writer, there’s a good chance that “Truly Madly Guilty” will be widely read, no matter what. It has all the requisite trademarks of one of her hits, a three-word title included. It probes some of the things she writes about best: fraught friendships, covert backbiting, stale marriages. And its format has become standard for her, with brief, maddening flashes of Whatever-It-Is that don’t gel until she’s ready to let them. All of it is formulaic by now.
But it’s a shame to see her resort to the level of contrivance that this book requires. You’d have to be a very dedicated Moriarty fan to believe much of anything that happens post-crisis.
When everyone is tormented by guilt over and over again, even torment starts to get boring. The most honest thing that happens is that the two old pals, Erika and Clementine, regain their old ability to curse at each other in German, using words, like “dummkopf,” that they once thought of as terms of endearment. Like so many small touches in Moriarty’s other books, it sounds like something real people might actually do.
Truly Madly Guilty
By Liane Moriarty
Flatiron Books, 418 pages.