Book Review: NINE PERFECT STRANGERS, ten days at a remote health retreat – what could go wrong?

Moriarity, Liane - Nine Perfect Strangers (1)Nine Perfect Strangers
Liane Moriarty

Gathering at the exclusive Tranquillum House, an exclusive health resort, for a ten day wellness retreat, nine guests arrive at the rural property with different goals in mind. Ben and Jessica hope the retreat will heal their fractured marriage while the Marconis and their daughter seek solace from grief. Carmel, recently divorced, wants to lose weight, and Tony, a former athlete, worries about his health. Lars, who often attends such retreats, uses them to escape the intimacy of his relationship. And Frances, a former bestselling romance novelist, not only was scammed by a man on the Internet who pretended to fall in love with her, her last manuscript was rejected.

All of the clients turn over their cell phones and other contraband, such as wine and junk food, with varying degrees of resistance, and are surprised that the retreat began with five days of “noble silence.” Masha Dmitrichenko, owner of Tranquilium House, a convert to healthy living after having a heart attack ten years previously, was experimenting with a new protocol during this session and was sure her new techniques would lead to lasting change in her guests. Though the silence was difficult at first, they did ease into it as they enjoyed daily smoothies, massages, facials, and hikes. Without speech, the guests couldn’t help but make assumptions about each other–yet the nobel silence was soon to come to an end. They wondered what would happen when they could finally interact and what Masha had in store for them next, hoping that she could solve their existential problems.

Although all the guests, plus some of the Tranquilium House staff, have point of view chapters, Frances’s viewpoint is dominant. One thing I love about Frances is that she is fascinated by other people. So many characters in books are antisocial or loathe others, it’s refreshing to see someone who relishes interactions with new people–even if it might only be for material for one of her manuscripts. Given that Frances is reeling from her first rejection, Nine Perfect Strangers includes (unflattering) insights into the publishing industry, such as discrimination and sexual harassment. It’s hard not to wonder if Moriarty was writing from personal experience.

At times, the book is very funny. Frances’ observations are witty and some of the situations are hilarious, but the book is also heartbreaking, particularly when recounting some of the characters’ backstories. While all the characters were flawed, they were also for the most part likable, though Masha’s past behavior was slightly inexplicable to me.

What I didn’t like so much about the book was that as I was reading it, I had no idea where it was going. I wasn’t even sure into what genre the book might fall. I’ve decided that this sense of being unsettled reflected that of the guests at Tranquilium House.

While it’s possible that Moriarity might be making general statements about the health and wellness industry in Nine Perfect Strangers, no doubt Tranquilium House represents a unique setting against which other facilities can’t be judged. The book questions not just how the health and wellness industry but how social media shapes expectations of beauty and behavior. It would be fair to say that whether or not Masha’s treatment worked, the experience did bring all the guests closer to being themselves, and while that might not always be the goal of these retreats, perhaps it should be.

Reading Nine Perfect Strangers was entertaining and satisfying, and it contained enough deeper questions that I was intellectually engaged, but it has a lighter tone than Moriarity’s other novels and it definitely wasn’t her best.