Nine Perfect Strangers Entertains, but Pulls Its Punches


Nine Perfect Strangers (2018)

By Liane Moriarty

Flatiron Books, 453 pages.




If you enjoy creepy and funny,  Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers is the sort of novel that grows darker degree by degree and even then, what you see isn’t exactly what you get. That’s both a good thing and (sometimes) a disappointing one. 

It opens in Sydney–Moriarty is Australian–where high-powered executive Masha Dmitrichenko is clearly ill, though she insists she’s fine and continues to respond to emails as EMTs check her vital signs. She orders them about, then goes into cardiac arrest. Ten years later, Frances Welty, a 52-year-old romance writer of declining reputation is having a panic attack over her decision to check into Tranquillum House for her bad back, weight issues, a devastating book review, and heartbreak over an Internet romance that was actually a scam. She can’t even get in the gate until a young couple, Ben and Jessica Chandler, show up in a flashy Lamborghini and punch in a code that was apparently too much for Frances.


 You’ve now met three of the nine perfect strangers who think a health retreat will cure their First World woes. The Chandlers are filthy rich after winning millions in a lottery, but with the cash has come an inability to deal with realities such as the fact that Ben’s sister is a drug addict and that Ben cares more about his car than he does about Jessica, whose numerous Kardashian-like body “improvement” surgeries are turn offs. The Marconi family–teacher Napoleon, midwife Heather, and their about-to-be 21-year-old daughter Zoe–are very fit, but harbor deep hurt over Zachary’s suicide three years earlier. (He was Zoe’s twin.) To the mix, add Lars Lee, a gay 40-year-old lawyer, who fears he will lose his partner who wants kids; Carmel Schneiber, a divorced 39-year-old mother of four daughters who needs to lose a few pounds; and Tony Hogburn, a divorced 56-year-old former Australian football star who needs to lose a lot of weight and get over his dog’s death. 


 Tranquillum House has mostly great ratings on social media sites, even from those who warn some of its modalities are unusual. Now meet the staff, massage therapist Jan, who has a new relationship with a cop; office assistant Delilah; personal assistant Yao, who was part of the EMT crew that worked on Masha 10 years earlier; and Masha herself, reborn as a New Age spiritualist, health food advocate, and salesperson extraordinaire. She promises that in ten days, each person in the group will be transformed. 


 Things get off on the wrong foot. Some guests who tried to smuggle in forbidden contraband (junk food, booze, tobacco, gadgets) are angry that their bags were gone through while they were doing yoga; Ben freaks when he can’t see his car; Heather thinks she smells a fraud; Lars sees lawsuits at every turn; and Zoe has smuggled in a few things. Only Napoleon seems willing to go with a program that begins with three days of “noble silence.” Decisions are split as to whether Masha is a genius or as twisted as an Outback snake. 


 Exactly! Moriarty wants to keep us off balance. There are numerous moments in the book in which someone you trust proves unworthy, or another you think is sane is crazier than a kookaburra. No matter what one might think of Masha’s intent, her methods are at best unorthodox and her spiritual exterior is easily pierced to reveal an arrogant Russian soul. We come to suspect her of evil intentions, but are we correct?


 Nine Perfect Strangers is a good end-of-summer page turner that manages to keep reader attention, even though we realize early on it’s no weightier than one of Frances’ romance novels. Moriarty had me until the very end, in which where she rolled everything in an easily digestible sugar coating and asked me to swallow. She even takes voice away from her characters and as, as the formerly hidden observer, assumes a role akin to free-frame coda labels at the end of movies that tell us what happens to the characters in the future. Do we need to know this, or is like the Wizard of Oz stepping out from behind the curtain? The latter, I think. In the wink of an eye, Nine Perfect Strangers goes from a yeasty stout to a Bud Light. 


 Rob Weir   

No comments: