“Sam and Clementine have a wonderful, albeit, busy life: they have two little girls, Sam has just started a new dream job, and Clementine, a cellist, is busy preparing for the audition of a lifetime. If there’s anything they can count on, it’s each other.
Clementine and Erika are each other’s oldest friends. A single look between them can convey an entire conversation. But theirs is a complicated relationship, so when Erika mentions a last minute invitation to a barbecue with her neighbors, Tiffany and Vid, Clementine and Sam don’t hesitate. Having Tiffany and Vid’s larger than life personalities there will be a welcome respite.
Two months later, it won’t stop raining, and Clementine and Sam can’t stop asking themselves the question: What if we hadn’t gone?
In Truly Madly Guilty, Liane Moriarty takes on the foundations of our lives: marriage, sex, parenthood, and friendship. She shows how guilt can expose the fault lines in the most seemingly strong relationships, how what we don’t say can be more powerful than what we do, and how sometimes it is the most innocent of moments that can do the greatest harm.”
My Thoughts: Liane Moriarty usually excels at portraying modern-day relationships in all of the gory glory. Her witty dialogue and realistic characters typically make for entertainingly uncomfortable reads, if only because she strikes so close to home in her situations and characters. Unfortunately, Truly Madly Guilty is a rare misstep in which the characters are less realistic than normal and the situations in which they find themselves are boring. Gone is the witty banter. In its place is a plethora of self-pity and adult whining. It is a novel that does more to annoy than it does entertain.
The story revolves around the mysterious catastrophe at an impromptu barbecue. The events of that night are enough to unravel long-term friendships as well as marriages and one’s mental health. Flipping back and forth between each character’s point of view as well as in time, you do not find out what the catastrophe is until late in the novel. By the time Ms. Moriarty reveals this event, the build-up to it is immense, eclipsing almost everything else that is occurring within the story because it is the linchpin behind everyone’s current behavior. Yet, the catastrophe, once revealed, is anticlimactic. There is no doubt that it was traumatic and scary, but the guilt everyone feels is almost too extreme for something that results in no long-term harm. The actions of the couples after the barbecue do not appear to reflect reality or even common sense, at least to me.
Making matters worse, the characters are almost insipid compared to her previous characters. Each is self-absorbed to the point of being irritating. Of particular concern is the friendship between Clementine and Erika. Theirs is a toxic friendship in many ways, and the animosity they feel towards each other most of the time will keep you repeatedly wondering why they remain friends. Disconcertingly, it is the men in the novel who fare the best under scrutiny. Of the six, Vid is the most realistic in his ability to accept what happened and move on with his life. He is not filled with debilitating guilt; he does not question his self-worth. His reactions are refreshing and become the novel’s highlight. Everyone else remains bogged down in their individual issues, which makes the story much of a slog.
In fact, the rest of the cast are disturbing stereotypes. Clementine is a musician by trade and Sam is in Marketing; Clementine is flighty and prone to extreme anxiety while Sam is spontaneous and creative. Both are outgoing and adventurous. Go figure. Erika and Oliver are accountants and are the exact opposite of Clementine and Sam to the point of being rigid, exacting, and introverted. Logic and discipline rule their lives. Again, what a surprise. While stereotypes are rooted in truth, Ms. Moriarty does nothing to challenge these stereotypes but rather includes every negative aspect of them which serves to compound the issues already existing within the novel.
Given the excellence that was her previous novel, the fact that Truly Madly Guilty is not very good magnifies your disappointment. Not every book an author will write is going to be excellent, and we should expect that. However, this novel is such a departure for her that it is a bit upsetting if not slightly shocking. The characters are too unrelenting in their stereotypical identity, too maudlin in their self-pity, and too one-dimensional to enjoy reading about them. The story itself is boring and lacks the sense of catastrophe implied by the build-up to the barbecue. The resolution is the most realistic part of the story but sadly should have been the initial reaction to the barbecue. The whole thing leaves a bitter taste in your mouth that represents disappointment, shock, and concern. One can only hope that this is a fluke and that Ms. Moriarty’s next novel lives up to her reputation.