Nine Perfect Strangers


I didn’t start crying until page 459. As I read through the story, I didn’t really expect to cry at all. In fact Liane Moriarty brought me right in with her funny (and oh so relatable) characters’ inner dialogues without missing a beat. I always love a story in which I can see myself and chuckle. And yes I guess I also love a story in which I see my grief reflected back to me and let go of yet another bittersweet tear.

Her story of nine perfect strangers brought together at the exquisite wellness retreat center Tranquillum is a funny poke at much of our cultural obsession with health, spiritual transformation and our addictions to everything from Pinterest to Doritos (wait for it).

She nails that experience of the judge-y first meeting through artificial bonding created at a ten-day wellness retreat. (Full disclosure, I am not a stranger to transformational wellness retreats).

I was led into the story by a flippant fifty-something romance writer, Frances, having an existential crisis. The host opened the retreat with the following comments:

I understand that some of you may find this period of silence particularly challenging. I understand, too, that the silence was unexpected. Some of you may be experiencing feelings of frustration and anger right now. You may be thinking: But I didn’t sign up for this! I understand, and to you I say this “Those of you who find the silence th emost challenging will also find it the most rewarding.

To which Frances responds, (internal dialogue, of course) Mmmmm, we’ll see about that.

But I was hooked when Frances was required to relinquish her cell phone.

“It’s time to hand over all your electronic devices,” said Yao….

“No problem.” Frances retrieved her phone from her handbag, switched it off, and handed it to Yao. A not unpleasant feeling of subservience crept over her. It was like being on an airplane once the seat belt sign was turned on and the flight attendants were now in charge of your entire existence.

“Great. Thanks. You’re officially ‘off the grid?” Yao held up her phone. “We’ll keep it safe. Some guests say the digital detox is one of the most enjoyable elements of their time with us. When it’s time to leave, you’ll be saying, ‘Don’t give it back! I don’t want it back!’” He held up his hands to indicate someone waving him away.

Digital Detox. A first-world phenomenon if ever there was one.

And I am sad to say, I related a bit to the younger participant Jessica who struggled to fall asleep without the comfort of a quick scroll through Facebook and Pinterest. She couldn’t shake the feeling that if she didn’t record this moment on her phone then it wasn’t really happening, it didn’t count, it wasn’t real life. She knew that was irrational but she couldn’t help it. She literally felt twitchy without her phone.

Moriarty’s observations are spot on. Nearly all of them. But what I really liked about this book was her exploration into what can happen in people’s lives when the ego is set aside. Her exploration of who is the “real us” and what drives the way that we relate to one another. I liked the way that she made me think about personal transformation, and what is it, really that we are going for? She made me think about the difference between the appearance of calm, peace, tranquility, and the actual experience of same. Do massages and candles, essential oils and fasting, facials and custom-created smoothies bring a lasting tranquility? Or does that actually come from something that most of us don’t really want to experience after all?

I know she is writing about some larger cultural issues, which I would very much like to discuss, but I have to skip that part because if I talked about it, it just might spoil the unfolding tension in the story. So maybe we can talk about it over coffee. It’s tough not to be a spoiler, because her ending made me question it all . And then wanted to embrace it all. Because, like I said, I started crying on page 459 and then I was laughing again, and then I was laughing AND crying at the same time.