Jessica Jeffers's Reviews > Truly Madly Guilty

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty
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At one point, I was sure that I was going to give this two stars. And then I read a little farther and was certain that it had redeemed itself enough that I might give it four. I have so many mixed feelings about this book. Ultimately, I think I landed somewhere right in the middle of loving it and hating it. Three stars doesn't necessarily mean this is an average book; it just reflects my complicated feelings about it.

Because there’s some things that Liane Moriarty does extremely well here. She paints amazingly complex portraits of realistic, flawed people. Their relationships to each other, the inner lives kept secret from even their spouses, the paths of their psychologies—all so well-drawn. These are characters that are so real that it’s almost uncomfortable to read about them.

She draws things out way too much, though. In doing so, Moriarty violates one of my biggest reading pet peeves (and this is totally subjective so it may not be a big deal to you): she builds suspense not by writing about suspenseful action or by showing us characters trying to solve a mystery but by simply withholding information from the reader. Which is a tactic that makes me kind of want to:

The basic thrust of this story is that three couples get together for a barbecue and SOMETHING BAD happens at the barbecue that creates new fault lines in their relationships. We spend 250 pages reading characters saying to themselves and to each other, “If only I hadn’t gone to that barbecue” or “Nothing’s been the same since that barbecue.” She’d cut the alternating chapters off at odd points in an attempt to build in mini-cliffhangers, so you never knew what chapter would eventually reveal the big secret. Invariably, whatever happens at that barbecue is going to pale in comparison to the hand-wringing that’s led up to it. The actual event turns out to be a great hook to build a story around, but I was weirdly let down by its reveal because Moriarty’s storytelling style had led me to believe that it would be so much more salacious that it was.

And she uses this tactic on too many separate threads. Not only is there a big secret about the event at the barbecue, but each of the six adults have their own baggage that’s gotta be teased out to some extent. Why does Erika avoid dinner with her mother so much? Why is Tiffany so afraid of running into the guy from her daughter’s school? Why isn’t Sam talking to his wife about his new job? Yeah, this stuff helps develop the characters, but it also just adds extra pages to an already stuffed-full narrative. Some of these threads easily could have been spun off into their own novel and Moriarty would've had two much stronger novels instead of one that left me with so many mixed feelings.

And yet, as frustrated as I was, I enjoyed the book quite a bit. Moriarty's goal here seems to have been to examine how guilt drives us: feeling guilty about the decisions we've made that maybe didn't pan out the way we'd hoped, the weight of expectations and the fear that we might not live up to them, the regret we feel over actions we might not have even meant to take. She examines these ideas from many different facets and never seems to forget this goal, but, aside from the title, she doesn't pound you over the head with reminders that "Sam feels guilty."

Something else that Moriarty does exceptionally well here is shifting points of view. The chapters bounce back and forth between characters in the before-and-after of the barbecue, examining how each of the adults feel about the main plot twist and the psychodynamic reasons for their responses. She points out the different ways that characters feel about the same things as a way of demonstrating that we might not really know the people in our lives we claim to be closest to. It's interesting and it definitely helps develop her characters into such realistic people. But I did sometimes find myself wondering if any of them were ever at all even the least bit up-front and honest with each other.

I think that this could have been a four- or five-star read for me if Moriarty had just reined herself in a bit. Focus more on a single event instead of six characters' little secrets and a central event, and definitely cut down on the phony build-up. Her attempt to bring everything full circle at the end feels a bit forced, primarily just because she's given herself so much to wrap up, but she still manages to drop a few last-minute twists into the mix in a way that actually feels surprising. Even if you're feeling fatigued by all the "what-ifs" peppered in along the way, you'll be glad you hung in until the bitter end.
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Reading Progress

April 2, 2016 – Shelved
August 20, 2016 – Started Reading
August 24, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-18 of 18 (18 new)

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Terry ~ Huntress of Erudition Thanks Jessica, you just put my exact thoughts into words - she does great character analysis, but the build up to the main event gets annoying.

message 2: by Gail (new) - added it

Gail Have heard such so so things about this one!

Jessica Jeffers It has generally positive reviews. Overall, the story's pretty good but I really do hate the technique of building suspense through withholding.

message 4: by Gail (new) - added it

Gail Jessica wrote: "It has generally positive reviews. Overall, the story's pretty good but I really do hate the technique of building suspense through withholding."

Three of my friends who are HUGE Liane fans have all said it was her least favorite book of theirs.

Jodi Wow. I wrote my review before reading any, but yours is EXACTLY what I was trying to say. You hit it spot on, in my opinion. Thanks for taking the time.

Jessica Jeffers Thanks, Jodi. I agree completely with what you said -- get to the point already!!

Peebee I had a very similar reaction. I was almost past the point of caring what happened at the barbecue by the time it was revealed. But once it was out of the way, I enjoyed the book that much more.

Cindy perfect review!

message 9: by Frances (new)

Frances Dowell Yep, pretty much everything you said. Great review!

Jessica My thoughts exactly. I'm annoyed as she has done the whole "big reveal" thing in all of her books since The Husband's secret. I could forgive it in the others, mostly, as it was information that the characters didn't know yet. However, in this novel it's just a flat out lazy way of building suspense. I flat out HATED the first half of the novel. However, as soon as I found out what happened at the BBQ I began to enjoy it. I really enjoy how she writes realistically about relationships. I'm feeling very conflicted about this book and I'm not going to read the next one if she chooses to use her gimmick again.

Jessica Jeffers Jessica wrote: "My thoughts exactly. I'm annoyed as she has done the whole "big reveal" thing in all of her books since The Husband's secret. I could forgive it in the others, mostly, as it was information that th..."

Thanks, Jessica. I love the way she writes characters and relationships, but I do feel like she relies on a gimmicky reveal in all of her books.

message 12: by Mich (new) - rated it 3 stars

Mich This is exactly how I felt about this book. You read my mind!

Agnes Richard A perfect review!

Sarah Yes...what she said!

Allison Nail on the head! I love her books generally, but this one with the dragging out of what happened at the barbecue was making me a little crazy!!!!

Erica Smith You captured so eloquently what I couldn't put into words. Thank you. I will say, I found the character development so impressive that it overrode my feeling of "just tell us WTF happened at the barbecue!" By the reveal, I had ruled out most characters dying or sleeping with each other. So I just kind of accepted it as a plot device that wouldn't be earth shattering and bobbed along enjoying the journey.

Deborah Meghnagi Bailey Totally agree!

Kelly This is the perfect review! Captured exactly how I felt about this book!

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