"Big Little Lies" by Liane Moriarty (Amy Einhorn/Amy Einhorn)

The cover art for Liane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies” flaunts an oversize, multicolored lollipop shattering into a thousand pieces. It’s a perfect metaphor for the seemingly sweet lives of the novel’s characters and how the sugar-coated lies they hide behind are smashed to bits.

In “Big Little Lies” and previous novels, including last year’s compelling “The Husband’s Secret,” Moriarty chronicles what at first appear to be the simple, day-to-day experiences of wives and mothers in her native Australia. Except for their occasional use of “gidday” and other Australian colloquialisms, the women residing on the Pirriwee Peninsula near Sydney could just as easily live in Anywhere, U.S.A.

In the opening pages, angry shouts are heard coming from Pirriwee Public School, where parents in costumes are attending what should be a carefree fundraising event. Instead, moms dressed like Audrey Hepburn and dads decked out like Elvis Presley are brawling. One parent won’t survive, but before we find out who, the novel jumps back six months.

The family problems Moriarty unwraps are familiar even as we shake our heads, convinced that the terrible goings-on — domestic violence and bullying — could never happen to us.

We first meet Madeline on her 40th birthday. She’s married to the steadfast Ed, with whom she has two young children, Chloe and Fred. She’s also mother to teenage Abigail, whose father, Nathan, abandoned them when Abigail was an infant. Madeline has nurtured her grudge against Nathan for 14 years, fortifying it with growing resentment over the fact that he now appears to be a good father to his own daughter. She can’t appreciate her happy family life, and she can’t see what Ed can see: that her friends Celeste and Jane are “damaged” women.

Celeste is “unacceptably, hurtfully beautiful.” She lives with her wealthy husband and their twins in a gorgeous house overlooking the beach. Of all the secrets hidden in this book, Celeste’s are the ugliest. Moriarty’s explicit descriptions of beatings and the skewed logic of abuse will have you reeling. “A little violence,” Celeste tells herself, “was a bargain price for a life that would otherwise be just too sickeningly, lavishly, moonlit perfect.”

Single mom Jane has just moved to Pirriwee. Her son, Ziggy, is about to enter kindergarten. Jane has kept the identity of Ziggy’s father a secret and is still struggling with the terrible events that occurred on the night her son was conceived. When sweet Ziggy is accused of choking a classmate, Moriarty brings bullying to center stage and focuses on the outrageous behavior of parents. Middle-school mean girls, it seems, sometimes grow up to be mean mommies.

At the Pirriwee school, they’re known as the “Blond Bobs” because of their hairstyles. Like followers of a cult, they fight to control everything and know what’s best for everyone else. Maybe banning cupcakes from the classroom is worthy of consideration, but disagree with the Blond Bobs and you’ll be shunned for life. Moriarty intuitively grasps these women’s aspirations and how they brandish their children like trophies. One observant parent describes another as the “quintessential Blond Bob. She’s on the PTA and she has a horrendously gifted daughter with a mild nut allergy. So she’s part of the Zeitgeist, lucky girl.”

Anyone with children knows that sending your son or daughter to school feels a lot like going back yourself. It’s true for the parents of Pirriwee, whose lives run parallel and then collide under the destructive power of their deceit. They won’t be able to hide behind the facades of Elvis and Audrey on that deadly night at the Pirriwee school.

“Big Little Lies” tolls a warning bell about the big little lies we tell in order to survive. It takes a powerful stand against domestic violence even as it makes us laugh at the adults whose silly costume party seems more reminiscent of a middle-school dance.

And with the new school year starting in a matter of weeks, the novel’s message about bullying is a timely one. “Pirriwee Public is a BULLY-FREE ZONE!” the school’s official policy boasts, but “Big Little Lies” reminds us that it takes brave, alert adults and courageous children to stop it.

Memmott’s reviews have appeared in USA Today and the Chicago Triibune.


By Liane Moriarty

Amy Einhorn/Putnam. 460 pp. $26.95