My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Several months ago, I watched and really enjoyed the series, and belatedly remembered it was based on a book. Even though the essentially plot mystery was "spoiled" for me this time, I enjoyed the book even more than I expected, even more so than the show. The TV show was an excellent adaptation, but there's no way to capture the intimacy of being inside a character's head and hearing their every thought, knowing their every emotion. It was truly breathtaking sometimes.
Buried in the complicated story and complex characters are some profound thoughts on things such as bullying, gossip, abuse, and rape culture. This is one of the few times reading a book (or listening in this instance) that I've had to pause and make a note of a particular thought, because I was afraid I'd forget it by the end of the book. (Curse my tiny memory.)
There is a lot of conflict around the relative worth of working moms versus stay at home moms, but you also see how working or not working accepts each woman's own self-worth as well. You also see expressed the different in gender expectations - no one blames working dads for having long hours, but working moms are held to a different standard. A mom should innately know when something is going on with her child, but a dad isn't expected to notice, or blamed when he doesn't.
One of the central conflicts in the book revolves around rape and abuse. Madison gets upset when Jane is called a "silly girl" because such talk cuts very close to victim blaming. The "I wouldn't have gotten in that situation" or "I would have fought back" is a kind of victim blaming, too. For Celeste, she seems to think that because she fights back, she condones it, and maybe even asks for it. The time after the abuse is so pleasant that the time of abuse becomes "worth it." Of course, the line in the sand for Celeste ends up being drawn when she realizes that her sons have seen the abuse all along, and Max has begun aping his father's behavior. At the school, following Jane's revelation, Celeste seems more shocked that Perry's abuse wasn't just a private, intimate thing between them than she was that he was abusive at all. Celeste has a lot of complicated feelings about Perry and his death, and it makes sense. No one is black and white, and Celeste knew a different side to Perry. Even though she knew the truth about his abuse, and knew she had to leave him, and even knew he deserved to die, she was still in love with him, and those feelings don't go away overnight. So yes, her relief is mixed with mourning.
I also appreciated the way the book ends: abuse can happen to ANYONE, regardless of who they are and how they seem in public.
Jane also had a complicated relationship with Perry, obviously. She was hesitant to call what happened to her rape because she went up to his room intending to have sex with him. When the sex ended up being not what she expected, and she said no, that she didn't want to do it that way, it immediately became rape, regardless of whether she had literally been asking for it before. Add to that the verbal abuse, and it became a multi-layered assault. In many ways, Jane had continued to feel his abuse for the whole past 6 years because she had kept what happened to her a secret. She couldn't eat because she kept hearing his voice in her ear saying she was fat. She compulsively chewed gum because he had said her breathe stunk. She pulled her hair back harshly because she knew she'd never be beautiful anyways. She couldn't even think about a man dating or touching her without breaking out into cold sweats. She even thought Ziggy might be capable of cruelty because of his father's DNA. The night she told Madison what happened, it's like a spell was broken, and she slowly started recovering from the weight of the abuse and the secret she'd lived under for so many years.
Poor Ziggy. Not only is he not a monster, he's a true friend to Amabella, and keeps her secrets for her, even when it does him harm. People can be ridiculously cruel, especially when the scapegoat is an easy target, like a poor, new-to-town single mom with no status or influence. Celeste even mentions, if they had known Max was the real bully, there never would have been a petition to suspend him from school because his parents are rich and beautiful. I don't blame Renata being angry and wanting to protect her daughter, but she handled it poorly.
The gossip in this town was RIDICULOUS. It's highlighted by the interviews the townspeople did throughout the book, but rumors spread like crazy, whether they had any truth to them or not. Throw in a drama-hound, center-of-attention type like Harper and you have a recipe for disaster.
Central to this book is lies, both the ones each character told to others and the ones they told themselves. Jane's big lie (the secret she's kept for years plus why she came to Pirriwee in the first place) and Celeste's lies (we're fine, everything's fine) both to herself and everyone around her take center stage for much of the book, but central to the story itself are all of Perry's lies, about his abuse of his wife, his infidelity, his casual and vindictive sexual abuse of other women, even his use of his cousin's name to skate out of potential trouble.
There are also a lot of other lies - all the cheating husbands, Madison's complicated feelings about her ex and his wife, Abigail's ridiculous virginity website, Ziggy and Abigail and Josh and Max lying about the bullying. And of course, there are the lies a person tells themselves, to save themselves from the pain or sadness of the truth. There are Celeste's self-delusions about Perry's character, but also the lies Jane tells herself about being fine being Tom's friend, because she was worried that was the only thing they could be, and didn't want to be hurt. One of the happiest moments from the book was when Tom said he would be a fool not kiss Jane straight away, and she felt a flutter in her stomach and finally admitted to herself that she didn't want to be just friends. ❤️❤️❤️
I have to also mention the big lie that wasn't told, and one of the major ways the show differentiates from the book. In the show, only the women are out on the landing for the final confrontation with Perry, and although it's still Bonnie who does the pushing and causes the fatal accident, the women all agree to lie and go about their merry ways, bonded together as friends playing on the beach while the police look on. I think the books ending has more impact and is more true to life. Some of the husbands are there as well this time, and although initially the women decide to lie, which Ed in particular has a very difficult time with, Bonnie decides that after a lifetime of lying, she doesn't want to lie anymore. Book Bonnie has a more complicated backstory that we don't hear in the show - her dad abused her mom her whole life, while she and her sister watched and lied for him, and when Perry claims his boys don't see him hit his wife, Bonnie is enraged. In normal conditions, a tiny woman pushing a big man wouldn't have hurt him at all, but wet railing + tall stool + physics meant that Perry toppled over and slipped trying to catch himself. It made sense for Bonnie to tell the truth, because it was truly an accident, and because at this point, there had been too many lies and truth was too important.
Madison was central to the book in many ways - she was the one constantly standing up for her friends, and the one who bound their little mom trio together. She certainly had her own issues - her unshaking resentment of her ex for abandoning her and Abigail, and her unfailing belief that he didn't deserve the love Abigail gave him. It's hard enough having a 14 year old (I presume, I wouldn't know), but when you and her father aren't on the same page, and she can essentially play you against one another, it doesn't make life any easier. Despite these issues, I'm wondering if the producers of the show felt they needed to increase Madison's (aka Reese Witherspoon's) role in the story? Other than the relatively minor change to the ending and the subtraction of Renata's French nanny subplot, the most major changes between the book and the movie surrounded Madison and Ed. Not only are they more affluent in the show (Madison doesn't *have* to work at the theater, she does it because she wants to), but there's this huge subplot about the show her theater is putting on (She wants Avenue Q, Renata and her cronies are protesting), and of, she'd been having an affair with the theater's director the year before and he's still in love with her. There's obvious issues with her and Ed's marriage, and Ed is kind of passive-aggressive with Nathan, who is aggressive back, and there is additional conflict there. Abigail is also aged up to an older teen, which makes her virginity website actually seem plausible, if still horrifying. Oh, and their son Fred doesn't even exist.
Overall, I can't recommend this book highly enough to satisfy how much I loved its richness and complexity. I would still also recommend the show, and I don't think, in this case, it really matters what order you watch or read them in. Reading the book second felt like I was diving behind the scenes of characters I had already met, but I imagine watching the show second would feel like finally seeing characters you already know in real life, and since you know what they're thinking, you can fill in any blanks. Either way, both are joys.
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