I was about five minutes into the audiobook. Some mummy-mafia/schoolgate nonsense of the kind I diligently dodge. Brow furrowed, I pressed stop and Googled the title.
Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies.
I don’t know how it ended up on my phone, I don’t know why I kept listening, and I know without any doubt at all that it was the best book I read in 2014.
An excellent and thoroughly literary book, despite its Kmart-Mother’s-Day-foot-spa-freebie feel.
I recently finished Moriarty’s earlier book, The Husband’s Secret. For the last few minutes I was sobbing on the treadmill; a sign, always, of deep satisfaction.
I quite enjoy that it’s often difficult for me to pinpoint exactly why I like a book, a film, a person. It’s usually a cluster of hard-to-pinpoint charms, perhaps a dash of kismet, some aligned-planets and a sweet knowledge that things have been changed.
And because feeling so very enthused happens so rarely it’s always happily jarring.
Which is good. Because overthinking always sucks the joy.
So I won’t suck the joy out of The Husband’s Secret. Except to spotlight how it handled the strangeness of self-perception. About how we each walk around thinking we’ve got such an amazing grasp on the image we project: about how others perceive us. And then something happens to remind us that it’s all thoroughly fraudulent.
Like that student in 2005, who wrote on a subject evaluation form that he/she found me unapproachable.
Like the ex-boyfriend who I bumped into years later and who asked me, “are you still a Goth?”
Like the close friend who felt a need - a week in advance! - to warn me that she was going to hug me before I left for the US for six months.
Like that boyfriend who arranged a picnic for us. Outside. On the grass!
Like my mother making barbs that I’m “as hard as nails”.
My brow furrowed on each occasion, the comments were the polar opposite of how I see myself - how I think I present myself - but equally, these exchanges weren’t with morons; obviously I put ‘something’ out there that got flurried in with their own worldview.
To a certain extent all of the main characters in The Husband’s Secret had very fixed - if skewed - ideas about how they were perceived. The most interesting character was Rachel, a mother, a grandmother, who had spent nearly three decades mourning the death of her daughter.
She reminded me of myself, and more so my own grandma, in yet another of those pangs that warns that turning into Mum isn’t the problem, it’s turning into grandmama that’s the real threat.
“The Rosewarnes. We’ve never been a really affectionate people,” my grandma said to me a handful of years ago. Out of the blue, as most of her weird quips come. “Not like your Nonni’s family,” she presumed, referring to Mum’s side of the family, and nudging the assumed Anglo-stiff-upper-lip/Italian-effusiveness divide. I don’t remember how I replied; I suspect I would have reassured her that everyone loves differently and tried to contain any uncharacteristic… seepage.
Rachel in The Husband’s Secret had gotten into a series of strange dynamics: with her daughter-in-law for example, who she was so sure saw her as a doddery fool. And with a colleague who she was completely convinced had committed an egregious wrong. And these dynamics shaped - in fact boxed in - her life for decades. She lived a smaller life, a sadder life, based on how so very sure she was about how people saw her.
I’m not going to ask my grandma years on, whether she regretted not being the smother-you-with-kisses kind of grandparent. Nor will I ask her about whether having us call her by her first name was an intimacy-avoider she now laments. And I’m not going to bother explaining to her that I have no intention of following any Rosewarne traditions in my personal life.
I loved Big Little Lies which was funny and biting and clever. The Husband’s Secret has all that, with the added imposition of some gruelling, but maybe worthwhile, self-reflection homework.