Review by Tegan Lyon
Nine Perfect Strangers is the eighth novel from Australian author Liane Moriarty, widely known for her bestseller Big Little Lies and its wildly popular HBO adaptation starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern. Following the immense success of Big Little Lies, Nine Perfect Strangers came with high expectations; Kidman even optioned the rights before the novel was published in September 2018.
With the TV adaptation set to premiere in Australia on August 20th, there will no doubt be creative licences taken with Moriarty’s characters and the novel’s Australian setting. The adaption has attracted several big names, with Nicole Kidman staring as Masha—a character that will predictably be given an increased role—and Melissa McCarthy taking on the role of Frances. If the limited series is anything like its source material, Nine Perfect Strangers will be entertaining and easy to digest, while ruminating on loss, disconnection, and the plausibility of self-improvement.
Nine Perfect Strangers unfolds over ten days at a wellness retreat with the interweaving narratives of nine guests, all seeking a mental and physical reset. Located in the remote bushlands of northern New South Wales, the wellness retreat is aptly named “Tranquillum House”. At the helm of this transformative resort is director Masha, a figure once referred to as a “celestial being”, who promises to heal, detox and reform each guest using unorthodox, yet rewarding, methods. Guests must unplug from the outside word, cleanse their bodies of toxins, meditate, exercise, and observe periods of fasting and noble silence, all for a hefty fee under the guise of self-improvement.
It’s an environment that’s rife for character development and the novel enjoys a glacial pace as it peels back the layers of these nine strangers and reveals their backstories. Most of the guests at Tranquillum House are grieving in some way—over a relationship, a loved one, an old life—or experiencing bouts of self-loathing, and in some cases, both. The novel is light on plot and its dawdling pace might frustrate some readers, particularly since certain characters and their subsequent journeys resonate more than others. But for readers (like this one) who relish character growth over plot advancement, the novel’s slow burn will be a satisfying one, as it has the effect of evolving in real-time across the ten-day program.
The most notable and entertaining of Moriarty’s characters is Frances, a wry, charming, and prolific romance author previously caught up in a fraudulent dating scam. Frances’ narration also offers several metatextual jokes and references about genre fiction and “unseemly mass market sales of ‘airport trash'”, an obvious nod to Moriarty herself, whose books have been derisively branded as “chick lit”.
Among the other eight guests are Napoleon, Heather and Zoe Marconi, a family recovering from a personal tragedy; Ben and Jessica, a young, wealthy couple on the brink of separation; Tony, a retired athlete; Lars, a self-proclaimed health-retreat junkie; and Carmel, a recently divorced mother of four. While most characters are worth investing in, others aren’t as fully formed. Allocated only a handful of chapters, Lars feels underdeveloped and contributes little to the story, except for the occasional moment of brevity. Conversely, Carmel is intentionally one-dimensional. Her self-worth is defined by her perfectly healthy weight, and she bores several other characters with repeated talk of her narrow obsession.
Unfortunately, the novel’s main antagonist, Masha, lapses into cartoonish territory in the latter half of the story. Her quasi-inspiring speeches begin to fall flat and what might have once sounded profound becomes empty, corporate, team-building nonsense as she loses control of her guests. Even when key pieces of her history are revealed to contextualise her behaviour, Masha is disappointingly two-dimensional and never fully humanised. Ironically, where most of her guests experience personal growth, Masha simply regresses. Nine Perfect Strangers oscillates between a hopeful and cynical view of wellness retreat fads and the industry as a whole. At times the novel makes light of the extreme activities that have been engineered for mental clarity, such as fasting and periods of silence, while also noting that the wellness industry is exclusively accessible to privileged people. But there are true moments of insight and healing peppered throughout the story that make a strong case for self-reformation. The overarching question that underpins the whole novel is, how much can a person really change themselves? And moreover, do these changes last? Even with a satisfying conclusion and several neatly tied threads, Moriarty refuses to answer these questions definitively.
Tegan Lyon is a new student of the Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing program at The University of Melbourne. She recently returned from a road trip around Australia, where she lived in a tent for the better part of five months. She didn’t read any of the books she brought with her.