Nine Perfect Strangers pretty much says it all. This book is about nine guests at a luxury health retreat who don’t really know each other. They make judgments and assumptions based on their first impressions of the other visitors. This is all before they have a chance to get acquainted using Masha’s unconventional methods.
The title is especially ironic because some of the guests have come in groups. Ben and Jessica are married—hardly perfect strangers. Napoleon, Heather, and Zoe also seem to be a close-knit family. The story explores the ways we can be estranged from the people who live under the same roof as us. The secrets that these characters keep effectively make them foreign to each other.
Don’t worry. By the end of the book everyone’s going to know each other a whole lot better.
The last few chapters of the book tie up all the loose ends for the guests after they leave Tranquillum House, but the absolute last chapter and paragraph belongs to Frances as she puts a ring on Tony, who becomes her husband number three:
Oh, reader, of course she married him eventually. You’ve met her. She waited until her sixtieth birthday. She wore turquoise. She had eleven bridesmaids, none of whom was under the age of forty-five, thirteen flower girls, and one page boy, a toddler just learning to walk, who clutched a Matchbox car in each of his tiny fists. His name was Zach.
Every chair at the reception was tied up with a giant white satin bow at the back.
It was the most beautiful, ridiculous wedding you’ve ever seen. (79.1-3)
What else is there to say about this ending except that it’s extremely ironic. The guests were completely enraged at Masha for drugging and pretending to kill them. (And, trust us, we’re totally on board with their anger.) But, after leaving her retreat they’ve actually found…happiness? Wellness? Transformation? Wow. Maybe Masha really is good at her job after all.
After the success of her novel, Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty joked that she was going to set her next book at a tropical island resort so she could do a lot of research. But then she realized, hey, that’s actually a pretty great idea.
Nine Perfect Strangers isn’t set on a tropical island (definitely a missed “research” opportunity). It does take place at a luxury health resort in the bushland of Australia about six hours northwest of Sydney. Here’s how Frances describes the fictional Tranquillum House when she first sees it:
That’s more like it, thought Frances when she got her first look at the Victorian mansion emerging majestically in the distance. The road was paved now, thankfully, and the bushland became progressively greener and softer. Tranquillum House was sandstone, three storys, with a red corrugated-iron roof and a princess tower. Frances had the delightful sensation of time-traveling to the late nineteenth century. (6.1)
She walked into a large entrance hall and waited for her eyes to adjust to the dim light. The soft hush unique to old houses washed over her like cool water. There were beautiful details wherever she looked: honey-colored parquetry floors, antique chandeliers, ornately carved ceiling cornices, and leadlight windows.
“This is so beautiful,” she said. “Oh—and look at that. It’s like the staircase from the Titanic!”
She walked over to touch the lustrous mahogany wood. Flecks of light streamed from a stained-glass window on the landing. (6.39-41)
So obviously, Tranquillum House is beautiful. It’s been totally renovated and is very upscale. This resort caters to wealthy clientele, so you can expect the very best when you’re staying there.
But there’s something slightly...off...about the property, too. Yao assures Frances, “we won’t sink!” (6.42) but the comparison to the Titanic is just unsettling. She can also detect the “ghostly smell of wine” (6.85) in the yoga studio. Not to mention that convicts originally built the house. Two of them carved their names in the stonework. That’s a bit ominous.
Eventually, Frances gets this feeling when she’s sitting in the yoga studio:
She looked dolefully around the room. There were no nice stained-glass windows to enjoy like in a church. There were no windows or natural light at all. It was almost dungeonlike. She was in a dungeon on an isolated property with a group of strangers, at least one of whom was a serial killer. She shivered violently. The air-conditioning was on too high. She thought of the inscription Yao had showed her from the convict stonemasons and wondered if the place might be haunted by their tortured spirits. She’d set a couple of her books in haunted houses. It was helpful for when you wanted your characters to leap into each other’s arms. (11.38)
That’s the basic vibe of Tranquillum House. It might seem like a boutique health and wellness vacation, but once you scratch the surface, this place is a whole lot more sinister. The staff here isn't just looking to provide you with a relaxing 10-day getaway. They want to change your life. And they’ll do that by any means possible.
Just stay alert in the yoga studio. That’s all we’ll say.
You suppose you are the trouble
But you are the cure
You suppose that you are the lock on the door
But you are the key that opens it
Just when I discovered the meaning of life, they changed it.
If you were scratching your head and thinking that these epigraphs contradicted each other a bit, we won’t argue with you. Shmoop’s getting a heavy contrary vibe from these two quotes, too.
Let’s start with the Rumi quote, which implies that the key to happiness and wellness is right inside our hearts. That ties in really nicely with the themes of this book. The nine Tranquillum House guests assume that they needed to change something about their lives, but they just needed to figure out that the key to their own happiness is right inside them all along. Change comes from within. Ommm.
But just in case you were feeling very “Namaste,” here’s George Carlin to flip the script on you. His quote seems to mean that change is constant. Just when you think you’ve got everything figured out, life goes and pulls a big ol' switch-a-roo on you. At the end of the story, our nine perfect strangers have found happy endings, but will it last? Have we ever truly figured life out?
Whoa. That’s a lot of thinking packed into two short little quotes.
Nine Perfect Strangers has a lot of characters, and the story is constantly shifting from their 12—count them, 12!—different points of view...but that doesn’t mean it’s an inherently difficult read. Once you figure out who’s talking (and the author makes it easy by heading each chapter with the name of the point-of-view character) you’ll be flipping pages in no time.
Confession time—we here at Shmoop love smoothies. Strawberry smoothies. Pineapple smoothies. Cucumber smoothies. Matcha green tea and pomegranate smoothies. We just can’t get enough.
But the smoothies they serve at Tranquillum House? Color us skeptical.
Sure, they all taste delicious. But they’re also filled with micro-doses of LSD. Gee, maybe that’s why everyone’s digging the flavor so much. Plus, they’re not exactly optional:
“The smoothies are mandatory,” said Yao kindly. It was confusing because you’d think from his tone that he’d said, “They are optional.” (57.177)
Smoothies are just one of the ways that the staff at Tranquillum House exerts control over their guests in subtle ways. Masha and her team want it to seem like they’re promoting health and wellness, but they’re really drugging everyone to put them in a better mood.
First, they get the guests to give up the foods they like. Then they get them to drink their smoothies. Next thing you know you’re locked in the yoga studio after a particularly intense smoothie-induced drug trip.
Wow. Personal transformation and smoothies—it’s a slippery slope.
Ever snuck candy into the movies? Oh, you little rebel. You’re just like the guests at Tranquillum House.
Many of the folks staying at this 10-day detox retreat can’t quite bring themselves to totally detox from the outside world so they try to bring in some forbidden items. Here’s Frances:
She didn’t want to let the bag out of her sight because she’d packed a few banned items, like coffee, tea, chocolate (dark chocolate—antioxidants!), and just one bottle of a good red (also antioxidants!). (6.24)
Tony also stocks up on beer and crackers. Zoe wraps up a bottle of wine and some peanut butter cups. And Napoleon brings in a watch, which, apparently, is forbidden.
These banned items represent the guests’ connection to the outside world. Sometimes Masha is able to squash it—like when the staff takes the contraband out of Frances and Tony’s luggage. Other times, the items sneak by without her notice—like with Zoe and Napoleon.
Masha needs to separate her guests from their familiar connection to the world around them so she can create her own reality inside Tranquillum House. A reality where she can shape and transform her guests as she chooses. But with contraband, her guests fight back.
Aside from the candles scattered throughout Tranquillum House, we only encounter fire once. And once is enough. It’s when Masha tries to convince her guests she’s burning the house down with them inside.
Yeah, she’s got issues:
She had begun a new life when she emigrated, when her son died, and again when her heart stopped. She could do it again.
Sell this property and buy an apartment in the city.
Or … She studied the tiny flickering flame.
The answer was right there. (65.86-89)
Fire has been viewed as a symbol of death and rebirth in some cultures, which is why it makes sense that Masha sees it as a solution to her problems at Tranquillum House. If she can force her guests to face their own death, they’ll emerge from the “flames” transformed. Then they’ll burst out of the yoga studio and shower her with praise and gratitude for her life-changing methods.
Yeah, it sounded better in Masha’s head, too.