Potential Space

by Alexandra Guhde, PsyD
The 2017 television miniseries Big Little Lies, starring Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, is set in Northern California, and features (mostly) white, athleisure-clad, privileged, unhappily married helicopter moms who are either stay-at-home or big-corporate, all searching for a sense of authorship over their own lives. The series has it all: sex, drama, bullying, rape, trauma, food allergies, domestic violence, affairs, malicious gossip, yoga, manslaughter, psychotherapy, and a gun. It's an enjoyable ride.
The novel, from which the series is adapted, written by Australian author Liane Moriarty, is quite similar, except the moms are "mums," not all of the marriages are unhappy, and there are no guns. Also, the novel is set in Sydney, Australia, the achingly pretty, ludicrously expensive city in which I currently reside.
And, truth be told, Sydney's northern suburbs -- where Moriarty's original characters have their water views -- make a far better backdrop for Big Little Lies than Monterey, California, and not only because Sydney's beaches are more pleasant for athleisurely activity. So far as I can tell, Moriarty's novels are all set in Sydney, and the author's affection for her hometown is categorical. Sydney is as alive in Moriarty's stories as any of her characters. In the miniseries, her human characters have to fake it a little to live in California. They look cold in all that fog. And, they don't fit the place in time, somehow.
It's difficult to put my finger on exactly how or why this is so, but my experience is that the divide between masculine and feminine runs deeper in Australian culture than in much of the U.S., and is more embodied. As cosmopolitan as Sydney might be, there's something old-fashioned about being a woman in Australia. And, in Sydney, money and privilege seem to act as amplifiers for gender politics in ways which are particularly Australian.
Moriarty brings these particularities to life. Her writing style is heavily interior. Her characters spend a lot of time musing on personal agency and the space-between in relationships. Though they are simply -- even simplistically -- drawn, her women tend to linger in the mind; it's easy to get involved in their lives. She writes almost exclusively from the female perspective, and the writing is unabashedly, casually feminist. An American reader can easily relate. Yet Moriarty's writing is also definitely not American.
While her sentences are occasionally solemn and awkward, like soul-searching adolescents, they are also often true. Moriarty captures an essential, frustrating, and wonderful experience of being in relationships -- the intimacy that is only possible if we allow Otherness into our lives. Rather than try to dissolve gender lines, subvert power, or even close the gap between, Moriarty builds a bridge to the Other. And, these days, we could use more bridges.