|Australian author Liane Moriarty’s debut novel, Three Wishes, was my Favorite Find of 2005, a charming, quirky Chick Lit novel about triplet sisters and the friends, lovers and even strangers with whom they interacted. Moriarty’s sophomore release, The Last Anniversary, is even more impressive. The novel is packaged as Chick Lit, but it is more sophisticated thematically and stylistically than most offerings in the genre. Sometimes dark, sometimes hilarious, and constantly surprising, the novel will keep you turning the pages wondering what Moriarty has up her sleeve for the next chapter.
The tiny island of Scribbly Gum is one of Australia’s most popular tourist destinations, all because of the Munro Baby Mystery. In 1932, sisters Connie and Rose Doughty stopped by for a cup of tea with their neighbors, Jack and Alice Munro, only to find the kettle ready to boil and a marble cake ready to be iced but no sign of the couple. The Munros’ newborn baby, who was just waking up from her nap when the Doughty sisters arrived, was given the name “Enigma” and raised by the two sisters after a fruitless search for her parents. In addition to Connie, Rose and Enigma, the island is now inhabited by Enigma’s children and grandchildren, who give tours of the Munro house and present a lively annual carnival on the anniversary of the occasion.
The Scribbly Gum Island residents are coping with the sudden death of Connie Doughty when they receive shocking news. Connie has bequeathed her house to Sophie Honeywell, the former girlfriend of Enigma’s grandson Thomas. Sophie had only met Connie once or twice when she was dating Thomas, and although she had expressed delight with the house, she can’t imagine why Connie would turn it over to a virtual stranger. Still, she can’t resist such a wonderful, unexpected gift and quickly makes plans to move to the Island. While the house itself is total bliss, the living experience is slightly odd due to the tensions Sophie senses among the inhabitants. Elderly Rose is a dear but spacey. Enigma’s overweight, people-pleaser daughter Margie is keeping a secret from her scornful husband Ron. Margie’s daughter Veronika resents Sophie’s inheritance and threatens to contest the will. Enigma’s other daughter Laura has taken off on a year-long trek around the world, despite the fact that her only child Grace has just given birth to her first child. Grace herself is devastatingly beautiful and talented but emotionally distant, a seemingly strange match for her likeable, outgoing husband Callum.
As Sophie prepares for the upcoming Anniversary Night Celebration, she finds herself involved in the Munro Baby Mystery in a way she never imagined. Before the fateful night is over, two people will engage in an illicit kiss, a life will be put in danger, someone will end up in jail, someone else will reappear in the nick of time, and the truth that Connie, Rose and Enigma have kept from the world for seventy years will finally be revealed.
Moriarty’s first two novels reveal that she eschews straightforward narrative. Although Sophie is the novel’s nominal heroine, Moriarty utilizes multiple points of view, and some chapters are presented as pure dialogue, leaving the reader to deduce the speakers from the context. At first the numerous characters are overwhelming, but as the story progresses it becomes easier to keep track of everyone. The diverse narrators allow the author to explore her major theme of motherhood in all of its forms. There are overly-involved and emotionally absent mothers, biological and adoptive mothers, women who desperately wish to be mothers, and women who are afraid they should never have become mothers. The novel contains an eerily accurate portrayal of post-partum depression (apparently called “postnatal” depression Down Under), and despite much of the novel’s light tone the topic is addressed with the serious attention it deserves. Other plot threads, such as chubby Margie’s secret life, are handled with a deft combination of humor and emotion.
The unusual story is filled with surprises, most notably the secret behind the Munro Baby Mystery that finally comes to light. Readers are warned not to peek ahead to the ending, as the plot twists continue right up until the last page. Although the book is marketed as Chick Lit, there is little conventional romance in the novel; however, readers looking for a happy ending will not be disappointed. As Sophie realizes, “sometimes you have to come up with your own fairytale ending.”
Liane Moriarty’s sister Jaclyn is a successful author of Young Adult novels, including Feeling Sorry for Celia and The Year of Secret Assignments, both of which I highly recommend. For a great bonding experience, why not read The Last Anniversary side-by-side with your teenaged daughter while she enjoys one of Jaclyn’s books? When you’re done, switch books and prepare to have some interesting discussions!