The book-buying public isn’t taking many chances this summer. Established hits like “Gone Girl,” “Unbroken” and “The Glass Castle” remain lodged on best-seller lists. Readers are still struggling to get through “The Goldfinch.” One of the few new authors to gain a toehold is Robert Galbraith, who has the advantage of having been J. K. Rowling in a previous life. And “The Husband’s Secret” by Liane Moriarty continues to sell briskly in hardcover, even though next week will be the first anniversary of its publication.
But now, Ms. Moriarty’s long-parched fans have something new to dig into. And her publisher would like to indicate, as clearly as possible, that “Big Little Lies” is more of the same. So where “The Husband’s Secret” had cover art depicting an exploding rose, the new book features an exploding lollipop. “The Husband’s Secret” was full of women with ethical and emotional issues, men with possibly criminal ones, and contentious goings-on at a school. “Big Little Lies” has all that and more. Had Agatha Christie written it, it might have been called “The Kindergarten Murder.”
Ms. Moriarty keeps her books long and gossipy, primarily by stalling. She introduces several sets of major characters, cuts back and forth among them, and scatters the narrative with foreshadowing about the terrible, terrible night — in this case, the Elvis Presley-Audrey Hepburn costume party at the school — on which something terrible happened. The book is peppered with parents’ voices commenting cryptically and amusingly about whatever it was. Was the root cause a French nanny? An erotic book club? Head lice? As evidenced by “The Husband’s Secret,” Ms. Moriarty’s fans will happily plow on through endless minor incidents to find out.
After a calamity has been established, we jump back to a chapter called “Six Months Before the Trivia Night.” (“Trivia Night” was what the Elvis and Audrey thing was aptly called.) And the book establishes what a power-crazed group parents of kindergartners can be. The book is set on a scenic peninsula outside Sydney, Australia, near one of the world’s most beautiful beaches (perhaps Bondi), where there is only one school, which must accommodate children of very different economic backgrounds. So there are rich, bossy power mums and mousy stay-at-home types. One of the mice is the literally plain Jane, a single mother trying to make ends meet. New to the region, she gets into trouble before school has even started. At the end of orientation day, a hotshot mother with a high-powered job accuses Jane’s son, Ziggy, of having tried to hurt her daughter. Ziggy becomes a pariah, and Jane becomes a victim.