Just a heads up: this post has major spoilers in it and talks about domestic violence, so read no further if this isn’t for you.
This book took me by surprise. I bought it on a whim after a big glass of wine at the airport (because who doesn’t impulse buy paperbacks when they’re tipsy?). It caught my eye because everyone was raving about the HBO series and being the skeptic I am, particularly when it comes to popular culture, I wanted to see for myself.
It started out as I expected: young single mother moves to rich suburban town, doesn’t fit in, and drama ensues. But about 100 pages in, this book starts to get dark. Violence starts to creep in and every female character grapples with the reality of violence against women in different permutations. Celeste is physically abused by her husband, Jane reveals that her son was a result of rape, and Madeline watches as her daughter attempts to understand the injustice of violence. I knew vaguely that this book was about domestic violence, but Moriarty steeps the book in the uneasy feeling that no one is safe and that violence is hidden and often unexpected.
Big Little Lies is told through traditionally female modes and in predominately domestic spaces: gossip told on the playground, social drama in the home, etc. And because of this female-centric narrative I think many are quick to slough off this book as a ‘beach read’ or a ‘trashy novel’. The fact that I bought this book at an airport in the popular paperback section of a convenience store squares it nicely away as a piece of frivolous fiction. But I think Loriarty is making a really important point by marketing this book as popular fiction and by setting a story about domestic violence in a world that’s coded with tropes of traditional femininity: Loriarty points out how quick we are to belittle or disbelieve stories told by women.
Women are consistently written off and shut down when they come forward with their stories of physical abuse or sexual assault because, as a society, we have an inherent distrust of women. Similarly, genres of literature that are primarily written for women and by women are the least likely to gain critical acclaim and be taken seriously by the academy. This book may be lauded as a New York Times bestseller, but it won’t receive serious scholarly attention and critical acclaim. It’s obvious that the patriarchy doesn’t like when women tell stories, in life or in writing.
This book reminded me a lot of a genre of American literature from the mid-1900s that I read in grad school: Domestic Noir. Domestic Noir examines the dangers of domestic life and shows the sphere that women have been forced into for so many years as one of treachery and cunning. The genre frames the everyday expectations of women as high stakes and depicts women protecting their family from the dangers of the outside world at the cost of their own safety and, oftentimes, sanity. This genre was also overlooked by critics of the day and only now being regarded with serious merit, as well. (Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall was my favorite one, in case you’re interested.)
Big Little Lies does a lot of the same thing: showing domestic spaces as places of danger and a woman has to be strong and smart to survive. The book turns traditional notions of domesticity on its head and shows the complex web of expectations facing women in situations of domestic violence. I’m really curious to see how they show all of this in the TV show (so if you have an HBO login, hit me up) and would love to hear what other people thought of the book, if you’ve read it. It’s been a while since I’ve wanted to really unpack a piece of literature (grad school burnout), but there seems to be a lot here. Thoughts?