Liane Moriarty is a best-selling Australian novelist. The HBO limited series based on her book Big Little Lies won eight Emmys in its first season, causing producers Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, et al. to draft Moriarty to write new material for a (lackluster) second season. Projects based on the busy writer’s novels The Hypnotist’s Love Story and Truly Madly Guilty are reportedly in the works.
So it’s not too surprising that another one of Moriarty’s works was recently released as a limited series, this time on Hulu: Based on the 2018 novel of the same name, Nine Perfect Strangers explores what happens when a group of troubled people meets up at an increasingly unconventional spa retreat. While an interesting concept, the execution falters. Moriarty’s previous books excel because they are eminently readable and usually involve some sort of plot twist/mystery propelling the reader toward that final page. The idyllic domestic seaside location of Big Little Lies centered on a mysterious murder, augmented by a Greek chorus made up of various locals kicking off each chapter with commentary (a device that worked better in the novel than it did on the small screen). The long reveal of The Husband’s Secret was similarly gratifying.
The novel Nine Perfect Strangers has no such payoff—just an increasingly strange series of rules and events at the retreat until the group in question winds up locked in a room, forced to work together to escape. I suppose the mystery lies in the motivations of the spa leader, Masha, who is commanding, yet a slippery character to get a handle on. Similarly, nine perfect strangers may have been too large a slate for Moriarty to tackle, as we’re also introduced to a grieving family, a young couple who won the lottery, and a fiftysomething novelist. The various interactions of this disparate group of people lack the momentum to push the plot forward in a compelling manner. It’s the rare Moriarty book that I had a hard time finishing, as I usually find her works solidly enjoyable. (The Hulu adaptation has had similar troubles, but we’ll get there in a bit.)
I say all of this at my own literary peril, since a few names stuck out to me while reading Moriarty’s book. Early on, the novelist character, Frances (perhaps a stand-in for Moriarty herself), is devastated by a review by “Helen Ihnat”: “It was a terrible review: vicious, sarcastic, superior, but interestingly, it didn’t hurt.” I looked at that name with a start. I reviewed the Big Little Lies series for this very website (raving about its greatness the vast majority of the time, at least for season one), which could be why Moriarty is familiar with the Ihnat name. Honestly, my surname is so unusual that I’m pretty sure I’m related to anyone who has it. And I couldn’t help but notice that “Helen” rhymes with “Gwen.” Maybe Moriarty just liked my name; maybe it was a friendly shout-out; maybe it was all just a coincidence. I noted it, and attempted to move on.
A few hundred pages later, during a drug-induced therapy trip within the spa walls, a character experiences a flashback to the woman who broke up his parent’s marriage: “When Lars was 10, his father left his other for a woman called Gwen [italics hers]. There may have been nice Gwens in the world, but Lars doubted it.” Okay, ouch. I get that my last name is rare and basically unpronounceable, like an anagram for nothing, but I’ve been a fan of my first name since young adulthood (after I quit trying to make people call me Wendy as a kid, because it was more familiar). I certainly don’t think it needs to be italicized to highlight its awfulness. Now I was wracking my brain to see what I might have done to piss Moriarty off: The only thing I can point to is that I called Big Little Lies an airport read. Because I picked it up in an airport. I also said that the limited series was better than the book, but that’s really Nicole Kidman’s fault, not mine.
Now I read on with a mix of anticipation and trepidation, and I was not disappointed. Two pages from the end of the book, Moriarty returns to reviewer Helen Ihnat to dish out a brutal fate: She lost “her entire life savings in a mortifying, high-profile cryptocurrency scam, and lived in a state of quite profound unhappiness for the rest of her days.” That’s some next-level shade, there. Joke’s on Moriarty, though: I don’t have any life savings! That’s part of the power (and the fun) of being a fiction writer—creating an orderly universe where you control the consequences and fates of your characters. Moriarty’s choice for Helen Ihnat just happens to involve ceaseless years of miserable poverty.
I’m still not sure if this whole thing is a super-weird coincidence, or if Moriarty chose my name for whatever reason to stand in for the reviewers who have wronged her. (That “Gwen” slam seems pretty pointed, though.) I felt vaguely like the young woman who suspected that the viral short story “Cat Person” was written about her life, without the closure of finding out that it actually was. Possibly, I am taking the whole thing too personally—wouldn’t be the first time—but I just couldn’t get over it. I posted the whole saga on Facebook as I was reading the book, and my friends howled. Some thought it was an obvious diss, some a nice nod. One suggested that perhaps the writer just liked the sound of my name, because sometimes when you’re writing fiction it’s difficult to come up with interesting monikers. One pointed out that I now had an archenemy named “Moriarty,” essentially making me Sherlock Holmes. Meanwhile, Moriarty is probably busy rolling around on her piles of money in Australia and having lunch with Nicole Kidman when she’s in Sydney—would she really take the time and effort to call out an A.V. Club writer? Probably not, right? And yet, there’s reviewer Helen Ihnat, destroyed and destitute; there’s not-nice Gwen, whose horridness is stressed in italics.
Naturally, when the Nine Perfect Strangers limited series debuted, I attempted to get an interview with Liane Moriarty. I planned to start out asking about her influences, blah blah, and what Nicole Kidman eats for lunch, before launching into my zinger: Why did you use the name Helen Ihnat? Unfortunately, I was informed that Moriarty was pretty much incommunicado because she’s in Australia, even though I’m fairly certain Zoom would still work there. (I also couldn’t help but note the recent string of interviews with Moriarty in publications like The Wall Street Journal and Parade.)
Still, I eagerly dove into the first Hulu episode, wondering who would play Helen Ihnat. I pictured a brash, no-nonsense journalist like Marcia Gay Hayden’s character in The Morning Show. In the novel, Frances (played here by Melissa McCarthy) begins the series distraught because she’s about to be dropped by her publisher, and then hears about her bad review. Same in the TV version, except it takes Frances a little longer to get word of the negative review of her most recent book, and it’s implied that the (nameless) writer is male. Bobby Cannavale’s character Tony speaks up for all of the novelists in the world when he consoles Frances by saying, “What do critics know anyway, huh?” Once again, my hopes for stardom were dashed.
At any rate, my reviews of the recent episodes of Nine Perfect Strangers are not likely to endear me to Moriarty any further. Granted, in her novel the first half of the guests’ stay involves silent meditation, so I can see why the adaptation had to amp things up a bit. But I still think the limited series would have been more successful if it had stuck closer to the source material, instead of spiraling out into such a fantastic shitshow for a few episodes involving a shooting, a strange tie between Masha and one of the guests, and even more hallucinogens than in the novel. It might also have helped if Kidman had used her real accent for once instead of a wavering Russian one.
Moriarty released another book this week: a family saga called Apples Never Fall. Even though Nine Perfect Strangers was not my favorite of her novels, I’ll probably pick Apples up, possibly at an airport. She definitely knows how to craft an effective, absorbing page-turner, perfect for a plane ride or a beachy afternoon. And I’ll be holding my breath as I turn those pages, praying that the villain isn’t named Gwen Ignatius or something equally familiar.