NINE PERFECT STRANGERS
By Liane Moriarty
Michael Joseph/Paperback/ 436 pages/$29.91/ Major bookstores/
Rating: 3.5/5 Star
Nine strangers gather at a grand, remote mansion for a health and wellness retreat. For 10 days, they are told, Tranquillum House will purge them of their problems - weight gain, failing marriages, self-esteem issues - with fasting, massages and meditation.
But Tranquillum House is the creation of Australian writer Liane Moriarty, best known for her deceptively dark novel Big Little Lies (2014), and so you can expect this healthful sheen to give way to something sinister.
Nine Perfect Strangers is a breezy trip that escalates into madness while skimming despair occasionally.
All the characters carry some emotional baggage, though the weight of it varies. Young couple Ben and Jessica have their marriage strained by a sudden windfall; Carmel, a middle-aged mother, frets about losing her daughters to the hot younger woman her husband left her for; Tony, a former star footballer gone to seed, wants to lose weight.
Their treatment is overseen by Masha, a gorgeous Russian megalomaniac who was transformed by a near-death experience into a wellness zealot, and her assistants, Yao, a true acolyte, and the more sanguine Delilah.
This is a fun read, but the profusion of perspectives means it is not as tightly structured as it could be and some of the better characters are lost amid this, for example, the Marconi family.
The family - parents Napoleon and Heather and daughter Zoe - are facing the third anniversary of their son's suicide. It is a chilling look at mental health, at the ugly morass of grief and guilt that loved ones are left to deal with in the wake of such an act.
Unfortunately, it is not the tale's heart, but just another ingredient in this smoothie of a story. It goes down easy enough, but one would like something meaty to sink one's teeth into.
If you like this, read: Suicide Club by Rachel Heng (Sceptre, 2018, $26.95, Books Kinokuniya), in which an obsession with wellness has snowballed into dystopia. In a future where people are expected to pursue perfect health for longevity, members of an anarchic group challenge the system by taking their own lives.