‘Big Lit­tle Lies’ author Liane Mo­ri­arty is back with an­other page-turner

Star-Telegram (Sunday) - - Arts - BY TAYLA BURNEY Spe­cial To The Wash­ing­ton Post

Liane Mo­ri­arty is a mas­ter of sus­tained ten­sion. You’d think her a di­a­bol­i­cal sadist if her nov­els didn’t also make you wish she were a friend you could meet for cof­fee and a spot of gos­sip. But she does de­light in de­lay­ing a re­veal, as fans of her smash hit “Big Lit­tle Lies” know, hav­ing waited un­til the fi­nal pages - or frames if they watched the HBO minis­eries- to find out not just who­dunit, but who was dead. Mo­ri­arty’s lat­est novel, “Nine Per­fect Strangers,” is a locked­door mys­tery, but the mys­tery it­self re­mains a mys­tery for much of the book. There’s a gen­eral sense of fore­bod­ing that builds, but what it’s build­ing to and which of the nine is and isn’t a vic­tim is a per­plex­ing puz­zle.

The tit­u­lar strangers con­verge on a re­mote lux­ury health re­sort, Tran­quil­lum House, where they’re promised not just re­ju­ve­na­tion, but rein­ven­tion. Many are un­happy with their phys­i­cal selves. Most are re­cov­er­ing from emo­tional wounds or avoid­ing ma­jor life de­ci­sions. The ma­jor­ity ar­rive alone, though one cou­ple hop­ing to save their mar­riage and an­other with their col­lege-aged daugh­ter in tow em­pha­size the ways in which we can be strangers even to those who should know us best.

De­spite the hefty price tag of the get­away, Mo­ri­arty cre­ates ways in for peo­ple from a va­ri­ety of back­grounds, some of which re­quire more writerly con­tor­tions than oth­ers. The so­cioe­co­nomic dif­fer­ences mat­ter be- Flat­iron. 464 pp. $28.99 cause soon af­ter the re­treat be­gins the group is asked to ob­serve a “no­ble si­lence” meant to clear ev­ery­one’s heads. The si­lence en­velops the group as it be­comes in­creas­ingly clear to read­ers - even those who’ve never set an un­man­i­cured toe in a spa - they should be bolt­ing for the ex­its. As the staff be­gins ma­nip­u­lat­ing the guests in truly bizarre ways, the strangers form opin­ions of the other char­ac­ters based on their own as­sump­tions, in­se­cu­ri­ties and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. Tran­quil­lum House be­comes a mi­cro­cosm of the macro world as stress and vit­riol cause the char­ac­ters to fall back on ha­bit­ual cop­ing mech­a­nisms and flock to oth­ers who might share their views.

Al­ter­nat­ing nar­ra­tors usher us through brisk chap­ters pro­vid­ing glimpses into the in­ner thoughts of each char­ac­ter. Our main guide is an author, Frances, who starts to feel like a ver­sion of Mo­ri­arty her­self, though it’s al­ways dan­ger­ous to project too much of an author onto her char­ac­ters. It’s clear, though, that Mo­ri­arty is hav­ing a bit of fun with us through­out the book and it’s through Frances that we’re let in on the joke. Mid­way through the novel she’s asked by Tran­quil­lum House’s di­rec­tor whether the novel she’s read­ing is any good. “Frances thought about this. The book was meant to be an­other mur­der mys­tery but the author had in­tro­duced far too many char­ac­ters too early, and so far ev­ery­one was still alive and kick­ing. The pace had slowed. Come on now. Hurry up and kill some­one.”

Hurry up, in­deed, for, whether you en­joy this novel or find it con­found­ing will largely come down to whether you feel you’re in on the joke or that it’s be­ing made at your ex­pense.

MO­RI­ARTY DELIGHTS IN DE­LAY­ING A RE­VEAL. ‘NINE PER­FECT STRANGERS’ IS A LOCKED-DOOR MYS­TERY, BUT THE MYS­TERY IT­SELF RE­MAINS A MYS­TERY FOR MUCH OF THE BOOK.

Flat­iron

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