One of the “nine perfect strangers” in Liane Moriarty’s new book happens to be a once-bestselling author whose career has fallen on hard times. Frances Welty’s latest book was rejected by her publisher, and perhaps even worse than that, a critic wrote a much-read opinion piece calling her novels “formulaic” and “trite.” Frances finds herself obsessing over it, which made me wonder if Moriarty was working out some of her own issues with negative reviews.
In any case, I found Nine Perfect Strangers to be anything but formulaic and trite, and it kept me awake an hour past my bedtime because I simply had to finish reading it. This is a very entertaining novel, although it’s one that goes off in some rather unexpected directions, so I’ll try to avoid spoiling too much of the plot.
Frances, along with eight other people—a newly-rich couple, an ex-athlete, a couple and their 20-year-old daughter, a woman whose husband has just left her, and a handsome lawyer—have all checked in to Tranquillum House for 10 days of wellness. The resort, in an isolated locale six hours northwest of Sydney, promises to transform its guests through “fasting, meditation, yoga, creative ’emotional-release exercises.”
“Like so many things in life, it had seemed like an excellent idea at the time,” muses Frances. What awaits her at Tranquillum House is a transformative experience, all right—but one that neither she nor any of her eight compatriots could ever have anticipated when they first drove through the gates. Rest and relaxation are definitely not on the menu.
The book has a lot of fun sending up the obsession with self-improvement, but it also tackles some very serious themes, and does so sensitively (as was also the case with Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, which dealt with domestic violence). Nine Perfect Strangers goes down as easily as a mango smoothie.
My friends Janet and Frank own a company that puts on teambuilding events for corporate clients. These tend to include activities like sandcastle building and assembling kids’ toys to donate to charity. They certainly do not send small groups of people into the Australian bush to face a variety of horrors ranging from venomous snakes, torrential downpours, and a creepy cabin that may have been home to a notorious serial killer.
Jane Harper’s sequel to The Dry brings back Melbourne investigator Aaron Falk, who had been covertly working with Alice, one of the teambuilding participants, to get some inside information on financial malfeasance at her company. When Alice fails to return with the rest of the group, Aaron and his partner Carmen Cooper are called in.
The book alternates chapters told in flashback which show the reader just what happened on the hellish outing with ones describing the investigation. We learn that Alice’s group got lost in the bush, and as the women ran out of food and water, they gradually begin to turn on each other. Harper’s writing is so vivid that reading about the teambuilding exercise almost becomes uncomfortable; I am someone who prizes comfortable shoes, so the descriptions of one participant hiking for miles in chafing, ill-fitting footwear practically had me rubbing my heels in sympathy. Of course, a few blisters are nothing compared to a snakebite. (Everything in Australia wants to kill you!)
Force of Nature isn’t quite as assured as The Dry, mainly because Harper overloads the book with complications: two of the women on the trip are identical twins with a fraught relationship; two other women, including Alice, have troubled teenage daughters; Falk’s partner Carmen is engaged to be married, but there’s some bubbling sexual tension between the two agents. Then there’s the long-dead (or is he?) serial killer. The Dry benefited from its focus on Falk and his backstory, while Force of Nature feels a little more scattered, as if Harper kept coming up with ideas and just decided to throw them all into the mix. Still, she does very well at building suspense, and Falk is a likable and sympathetic character. Chances are that anyone who reads Force of Nature will run the other way if their company ever tries to send them on an Outward Bound-type retreat.
“It’s the lack of water here. Makes the whole town crazy.”
So says a character in The Dry, Jane Harper’s mystery set during a seemingly never-ending drought in a remote Australian town. Melbourne federal agent Aaron Falk has stayed away from Kiewarra, where he grew up, for many years, but he is persuaded to come back by the father of his childhood best friend, Luke. It appears that Luke killed his wife and young son in a murder-suicide, and the grieving dad demands Falk’s presence at the funeral.
Of course, Falk soon begins to realize that the small town is a cauldron of secrets, and not everyone is glad to see him again—most residents recall the long-ago death of a 16-year-old girl, and the fact that many in Kiewarra believed Falk to be responsible. He did have an alibi, provided by Luke. But the girl’s outraged father ran the teenaged Falk and his dad (Falk’s mother had died in childbirth) out of town. The man is still alive, and while he appears to be suffering some age-related memory loss, he has not forgotten Falk.
Believing there’s more to the deaths of Luke and his family than meets the eye, Falk begins to investigate, aided by the town’s policeman, Raco. One of the best things about The Dry is that Raco is not the ignorant, territorial small-town local cop too often seen in mysteries; he eagerly accepts Falk’s help, teaming up with him to hunt for clues, and he’s a smart and ambitious officer hoping to use his time in Kiewarra as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.
The Dry really makes you feel the searing heat of southern Australia, a place where the rushing river of Falk’s youth is now completely gone, and the arid land has driven people to commit desperate acts. And don’t just take my word for it; producer and actress Reese Witherspoon, who famously bought the movie rights to Gone Girl before it became a mega-best seller, has made The Dry her latest acquisition.