Study Guide

Big Little Lies

By Liane Moriarty

Big Little Lies Introduction

Welcome to Pirriwee Public, a charming little elementary school overlooking the gorgeous Australian coast. The waves are soft and blue. The air is scented like eucalyptus. It's sunny even in winter.

And the people of Pirriwee are just as idyllic. The teachers are attentive (Miss Barnes is so enthusiastic!). The children are darling and precocious (that Amabella is rumored to be gifted and talented!). The mothers are doting (Celeste used to be a high-powered lawyer, but gave it up to raise her twins!). The husbands are hands-on and supportive (especially that handsome Perry!).

Does that sound too good to be true? That's because it, um, is.

The microcosm of Pirriwee Public is kind of like the Australian landscape. On the surface, Australia is all cute koala bears and vibrant subtropical blossoms. But if you look closer, it's teeming with funnel web spiders, death adders, and box jellyfish. On the surface, Pirriwee Public is shiny happy people and adorable tots. But if you look closer, it's a hotbed of vicious rumor mills, bullying, devastating domestic abuse, and acts of killing.

We meet everyone on Pirriwee Public's kindergarten orientation, an event that's tailor-made for sun-kissed kiddos and their helicopter parents. There's Madeline, who's a bubbly mom that's a fan of all things girly…and also a hard-nosed, stubborn, and rage-filled force of nature. She's basically a stiletto heel-wearing Tasmanian Devil.

There's Jane, who's a pragmatic and sensible single mom, working her twenty-four-year-old butt off to support her darling boy. She's also an open wound, haunted by a devastating night that occurred six years earlier.

There's Celeste, an ethereally beautiful and unbelievable rich ex-lawyer, who lives in a mansion overlooking the beach. She's also a victim of horrendous abuse, which has left her self-confidence shattered and her skin bruised.

These women become an unlikely trio, brought together by a shared set of values and a sense of being survivors together. But a vicious rumor about one of their children rips through the town of Pirriwee, pitting mother against mother and child against child. Things start to spiral out of control when it's revealed that the three women's friendship has linked them, not only to a mysterious case of bullying...but also to a tangled web of violence, psychopathy, and lies. Both big and little.

If this sounds like the promise for an incredibly successful HBO miniseries, you'd be correct. In fact, Big Little Lies, which aired in 2017, nabbed approximately a bajillion awards, including:

  • Golden Globe for Best Miniseries 
  • Golden Globe for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Supporting Actor
  • Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Direction for a Limited Series or Movie
  • Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie
  • Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Limited Series
  • Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie

…you know, we're going to stop there, because this list is looong. Go ahead and check out the whole, impressive enchilada over at IMDB.

But don't just watch the HBO miniseries, although it's definitely worth a binge. Read the book, because it manages to be even more warped, strange, frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious, and deeply unsettling than the show.

Just don't complain to us if you do a double-take everyone time you see an adorable, colorfully painted kindergarten…and then proceed to wonder about the complicated, sordid lives of all the mothers and fathers.

What is Big Little Lies About and Why Should I Care?

We're going to start this one off with a poem.

No, don't worry. It's not one of those flowers-trees-bird-moon-croon-June poems. It's, um…how about we just give you the (slightly censored) version?

They &%$# you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were &%$#ed up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Yup. Philip Larkin's "This Be The Verse" beautifully and succinctly encapsulates the brutal, central thrust of Big Little Lies: violence begets violence, trauma begets trauma. (The novel doesn't take the same hard-line "don't procreate" stance that Larkin has, though.)

The children in Big Little Lies are all adorable little cherubs, of course. They're also little tiny humans with small feet that have learned the behavior they see in their parents. Chloe, Madeline's daughter, is a bossy little firecracker with a sarcastic streak a mile long. Skye, daughter to Zen mama Bonnie, is an ethereal and delicate fairy. Amabella is ambitious like her mom Renata. Ziggy, Jane's kiddo, is serious, quiet, and remote.

He also might be abusive, just like his dad. Could he have inherited violent tendencies? This question haunts Jane after Ziggy is accused of strangling a classmate. And even though everyone around her tells her that it's a question of nurture rather than nature, Jane's still scared stiff, as any parent whose kid is accused of violence would be.

Meanwhile, Celeste is navigating a marriage being destroyed from the inside out by her husband's brutal explosive temper. She considers the questions of heredity and familial environment as well—are Perry's actions having an impact on their children? When children are products of a violent environment, what happens to them?

In other words, do parents, as Philip Larkin claims, "fill you with the faults they had"? Or is there any—even the smallest, slightest, snowball's chance in hell—of escaping family history?

Big Little Lies Resources

Websites

Read? Good.
Want to peep some reviews before diving into the drama in Pirriwee? Check out approximately 40,000 of 'em over at Goodreads.

More Moriarty
Keep on top of all things Liane Moriarty over at her author website.

Reese, Nicole, Shailene, Oh My
You might have heard of the award-winning adaptation of Big Little Lies, which transports Madeline, Celeste, and Jane from sunny Australia to gray Monterey. And if you haven't? Check out the official HBO website.

Movie or TV Productions

It's Not TV. It's Big Little Lies.
Yup: HBO's adaptation made this book even more famous than it already was. Star-studded cast? Check. Deep, intense drama? Check. Awesome musical score? Check. This show has everything.

…And There's a Season Two.
HBO goes seriously off-book and creates even more drama for our favorite trio to wade through.

Articles and Interviews

Moriarty Talks Hollywood
The author has had a serious brush with fame…and it made her double down on being a writer first and foremost.

The NPR Treatment
You can read (or, you know, listen to) Moriarty talk about a whole ton of Big Little Lies-related subjects. Suffering and self-care are only two of 'em.

Darker, Sexier, More Glamorous
Moriarty gets real with The Guardian on finding fame in America, the HBO adaptation, and being "very full of herself."

Video

Season 1 Trailer
Watch Moriarty's novel come to life while Reese Witherspoon says things like "Who knows what lies out there beneath the surface?" *Shivers*

Season 2 Trailer
Get teased by a teaser that shows Madeline, Celeste, Jane, Renata, and Bonnie referred to as the "Monterey 5."

Two Aussies On 60 Minutes
Nicole Kidman and Liane Moriarty talk brilliantly…and with adorable Oz accents.

Audio

Taste Of Audio
Want to get your Big Little Lies on on your commute? Take a listen to the audiobook, read by Caroline Lee.

Pop Culture Happy Hour
NPR delves deep into the HBO version of Big Little Lies, calling the show "one of the most impressive casts." We, um, have to agree.

Images

Exploding Lollipop
Want some cover art that manages to convey violence, childhood, sweetness, and innocence all at once? We think the O.G. cover of Big Little Lies does the trick.

Drama At Kindergarten
Check out the HBO cast, circa Season 1, looking sketchy and testy in the halls of kindergarten.

The Big Three
Reese as Madeline, Nicole as Celeste, and Shailene as Jane. Everyone's kicking back and chillaxing at Blue Blues, just as they should be.

Violent Elvis, Terrified Audrey
Celeste looks absolutely petrified, and Perry makes the scariest Elvis we've ever seen.

BFFs in Real Life
On the red carpet, Bonnie and Madeline seem to be getting along just fine.