Penguin | 2018, Pb 209 (7 March) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book
Frances Weltby remembers when she was a best-selling romantic novelist (who hasn’t read Nathaniel’s Kiss?) but her latest novel has just been rejected by her publisher and she’s also received a damning review that hurts. And then she fell victim to a scam artist, putting her heart at risk of breaking. She needs to recharge her batteries, to ready herself for the next phase of her life, and so she drives for several hours away from Sydney, Australia, to Tranquillum House, a remote health resort run by a charismatic born-again fitness guru.
Frances is joined there by eight other men and women, all of whom are hoping to reemerge as new people at the end of their ten-day treatment. It won’t be easy. They will be taken way outside their comfort zone (no wine or coffee or screens, for starters). But it is all fascinating for Frances, who feels inspired by her companions, each of whom has secrets, sadnesses and quirky foibles. They are like onions, ready to reveal their layers to this hungry observer of life.
And so begins a stay that will transform these nine lives. They’re quite a bunch – a retired sportsman, a bereaved family, a young ridiculously rich couple with a marriage on the verge of tatters, a woman who wants nothing more than to be so thin she’d be invisible, a handsome glitzy divorce lawyer. They each need help. The problem is, it’s not so sure that they’re going to get it and what they do get might not be exactly what anyone would want. It’s certainly going to be memorable…
As soon as I heard about Nine Perfect Strangers, I knew I wanted to read it and I read it as soon as I got my hands on it. The idea of a group of strangers on some kind of retreat or cut off from the outside world in some other way is a popular theme at the moment, especially in psychological thrillers, and I really like it. The idea of a controversial health resort in the middle of nowhere in Australia is also appealing. I can’t say that I fancy this sort of thing myself and having read this novel I can see that I’m right.
What happens in Tranquillum House is for you to discover but the main charm of this novel isn’t the plot (which is sort of a psychological thriller) but the author’s fine observation of her characters and the witty prose. This is a very funny novel in places. Frances, the woman that we’re supposed to identify with the most, gets most of the best lines and she’s a joy to spend time with, although, as with most of the characters, there is also something tragic about her. This is emotional stuff. One minute you’ll be chuckling, and the next you could find yourself crying. Some of these characters have a lot to cry about, whereas others are just so sad. One in particular speaks little. She barely exists. The narrative moves between the ‘patients’ and so we get to know a little about them all but, inevitably, some more than others. There were some I didn’t care much about but there are a few that I cared deeply for.
I did have some issues with the novel and most of those begin at the halfway point. Without giving anything away, the story takes a turn into preposterous and ridiculous country and I don’t think it recovers from this. It really does get daft and one or two people take on almost pantomime characteristics. Nevertheless, Nine Perfect Strangers is such a light and fast read (despite the length) that I stuck with it to the end, wanting to know the fate of the characters I did care about. I liked the mingling of humour and great sadness. I enjoyed the wit and lightness of the writing. If you’re after a fun holiday read, then this might well fit the bill.