There are many ways to mess up a thriller that begins with a slew of characters thrown together under unusual circumstances. Introduce too many characters at once and readers will have no way to remember who is who. Introduce them in the same way, and a formulaic, predictable pattern will develop that bores readers and make them want to find something else to do with their time. In her latest novel, “Nine Perfect Strangers,” Liane Moriarty (the author of the 2014 bestseller “Big Little Lies”) paces the introduction of her characters perfectly and finds amusing ways to gently remind readers who is who and exactly why they are important, proving she has mastered the art of such a story.
It all starts with a heart attack. Masha Dmitrichenko is a charismatic, alluring woman familiar with the stress and bad habits that come along with the fast-paced world of business. After she undergoes cardiac arrest and almost dies, she is inspired to change her life by opening a wellness resort, which she dubs “Tranquillum House.” The novel tells the tale of nine individuals who sign up for the Tranquillum House’s 10-day wellness retreat in Australia. The story focuses on Frances Welty, an established romance writer who is struggling to adapt to the changing publishing industry and other trials that come along with aging.
Frances is soon joined at the resort by a cast of other characters all grappling with their own problems: a has-been football player, a couple struggling to salvage their marriage, an insecure mother of four abandoned by her husband for a younger woman and a family trying to repair their lives after a suicide tears them apart. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a rotating cast of characters. Through a combination of flashbacks and present day events, readers begin to piece the lives of each character together and gain a deep understanding of who they are as a person. Each person is relatable, intriguing and painstakingly human and their stories are woven together in a way that makes readers hungry to know more about them.
Most of the novel is focused on the events that take place at the Tranquillum House. The guests endure fasting, extended periods of silence and other lifestyle changes promised to transform the guests. Moriarty is able to make seemingly small interactions and commonplace moments entertaining and riveting, as if they are not commonplace, but crucial. Even as the story goes on and it becomes clear the Tranquillum House and the ethereal Masha are not all they seem to be, the focus remains on the humanity of the guests. Such a focus allows readers to connect with the characters and know them on a level that would not otherwise be possible.
“Nine Perfect Strangers” is a well-developed, detailed novel about recovery and the transformative power of human connection. It raises questions of whether or not a person can truly move on from despair and loss, or if they even should. It tackles issues of body image, material possession and mental health. More than that, it presents readers with realistic and vulnerable characters, which makes for an intimate and moving story.