In this blog-exclusive review, we talk about the psychology behind Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers. Now a major TV series! Please note that this blog post contains spoilers!
Mental health issues covered: grief after a family member’s suicide, body image and disordered eating, drug use/psychedelics
Additional content warnings for the book itself: diet talk and fat stigma (presented with a critical lens), stigmatising language against people who use drugs, marital problems, nonconsensual treatments, death of a child
About the Book
Could ten days at a health resort really change you forever?
These nine perfect strangers are about to find out…
Nine people gather at a remote health resort. Some are here to lose weight, some are here to get a reboot on life, some are here for reasons they can’t even admit to themselves. Amidst all of the luxury and pampering, the mindfulness and meditation, they know these ten days might involve some real work. But none of them could imagine just how challenging the next ten days are going to be.
About the Author
Liane Moriarty is an Australian author. Her breakout novel The Husband’s Secret sold over three million copies worldwide, was a number 1 UK bestseller, an Amazon Best Book of 2013 and has been translated into over 40 languages. It spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list. With the launch of Big Little Lies, Liane became the first Australian author to have a novel debut at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Her novels Big Little Lies and Nine Perfect Strangers have been adapted for TV.
Welcome to Tranquillum House
Like many ‘wellness’ endeavours, Tranquillum House promises a lot. Led by the fascinating Masha, and loyal employees Yao and Delilah, this 10-day retreat offers a vague (and expensive) ‘mind and body total transformation.’
The nine ‘guests’ present initially as archetypes – the washed up creative, the jock past his prime, the successful divorce lawyer running from commitment, the insecure ‘first wife’ – but throughout the book have interesting and nuanced arcs.
A desire to heal
Each character has a substantial set of baggage to work through. In particular, married couple Heather and Napoleon are struggling to come to terms with their son Zach’s suicide a few years prior, while their daughter Zoe tries to balance her own grief with her parents’ increasing protectiveness. The book explores how the family interpret Zach’s death, including intense feelings of guilt felt by each character, blaming themselves (and others) for failing to notice warning signs or intervene, and struggling to integrate his death into their lives.
The novel also explores characters’ relationships with their bodies – particularly weight and physical appearance. Like a lot of people, many characters engage in diet talk, and conflate health with weight loss, and the novel does not shy away from portraying (and subtly challenging) the awful ways we often talk about our bodies – and others’ bodies. In particular, it highlights Carmel’s concern with losing weight, clearly linking her dissatisfaction with her own body with the end of her marriage and her ex-husband’s decision to leave her for another woman. We also have Jessica, struggling with her deteriorating marriage to Ben, who believes that more plastic surgery could be a step in healing their relationship, despite their shaky foundation.
Finally, we get characters who are at a crossroads with their careers and relationships. Frances – arguably the main character of the book – is coping with the grief of a scam relationship and troubles with her latest novel; Tony is experiencing health issues and estrangement from his family; Lars isn’t sure if he wants a child with his partner.
Ultimately, the guests all experience some kind of healing – or forward progression – at Tranquillum House. But not in alignment with the, um, ‘protocol’.
BIG SPOILER! Masha’s methods are somewhat unconventional already, but things take a turn when she begins ‘micro-dosing’ her guests with psychedelic drugs, specifically psilocybin. To be fair, there is emerging research showing psychedelic drugs can have real benefits for a range of mental health issues. But her ‘protocol’ does not reflect how these treatments can be issued responsibly. And, importantly, a key issue here is the lack of consent – the guests are not given an informed choice to participate.
Masha is a fascinating, ethereal character. Like many ‘wellness gurus’, her enthusiasm for wellness is paralleled by her narcissism. The novel also offers an empathetic window into what led Masha to uproot her corporate life and pursue this pathway – without condoning her actions, which we appreciated. Ultimately, her impulsive decision-making and lack of empathy lead her to some very poor decisions.
Final thoughts and star rating
Elise: I read this book knowing it had mixed reviews, but honestly? I thought it was fantastic. This book was entertaining and deeper than I expected, exploring each theme well. It is highly critical of the wellness industry while acknowledging that maybe we do need a bit of a break, some mindfulness, some exercise, and some time to heal. For me, the key strength of this book was its complex characters; though not all were given the sample amount of attention, I was drawn the most to Frances, Marsha (a great ‘villain’) and the Marconi family (and their grief). I also love how unapologetically Australian this book is. My main criticism is that the novel loses some momentum and the plot becomes more absurd in the second half, as Masha’s power trip amps up. But I enjoyed the ending and character resolutions.
A note: the book is also superior to the TV show, which sucks out much of the nuance and has much more one-dimensional characters.
Priscilla: Apart from the fact that it has been adapted into an American tv show, I didn’t know anything about Nine Perfect Strangers when I picked up the audiobook on Elise’s recommendation. I was sucked right in. I expected it to be convoluted with so many characters (eleven points of view to keep up with is a juggle), but to me each character had a distinct voice and was interesting in their own ways. The audiobook narrator probably helped with this too; she’s fantastic. Frances was my favourite; she was funny in an acerbic way, and I really enjoyed her character arc. I also enjoyed the depiction of grief experienced by the Marconi family, and how each member dealt with it differently.
The sense of mystery, the somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere, combined with Marsha’s personality (you get the sense she’ll do anything to accomplish her mission) lends an edge to the plot – I felt like there were moments where the book could’ve turned sinister and started killing characters off. Whether this feels absurd (like Elise says) or compelling (to me) probably depends on the reader’s personal preferences. Overall, I couldn’t put it down (or stop listening, in this case), and I was satisfied with the resolutions.
Relevant mental health info & resources:
- 12 things Nine Perfect Strangers gets right and wrong about psychedelics retreats
- The wellness industry is selling you the myth that a healthy life is expensive
- Maintenance Phase is an excellent podcast about the wellness and diet industries (recommended episodes include: ‘The Body Mass Index’, ‘The Obesity Epidemic’, and ‘Eating Disorders’)
- ReachOut and Lifeline have helpful information about coping with the suicide of a loved one
- The Butterfly Foundation has excellent resources around body image and disordered eating
Voices from Lived Experience
- Julie Halpert wrote about her experience coping with the death of her son from suicide in The New York Times: “If your child seemed to be thriving and there were no warning signs, you think you should have noticed them. If you knew your child was struggling, you feel you should have been more vigilant to prevent the suicide. There also may be stigma attached to a suicide death that makes the loss even more painful. ”
- Maria Del Russo speaks about her relationship with her body in Refinery21 (CW: body checking, body image issues): “For me, body positivity was still reducing me to just my body, and I needed to remember that I am so much more…. I don’t love my shape — but I don’t hate it anymore, either — and that middle place feels a whole lot healthier for me.”