What is 9 Perfect Strangers About?
It’s really a book about relationships in all states:
- A family after tragedy
- A marriage in decline
- New romantic and friend potential
Not all nine characters are given equal weight. The Marconi family, Frances, and Ben and Jessica soak up the most attention. The other three guests and the resort staff have sketchier plots and backstories.
Every character gets at least one chapter from their point-of-view, but this leads to some one-dimensional characters. For example, poor Sonia is defined almost completely by her hatred of her body.
9 Perfect Strangers Really Succeeds As A Romance Novel
Frances Welty is immediately sympathetic and relatable, even though I’m nowhere near menopause and I’ve never fallen for a stranger on the internet that I then gave massive sums of money to. Frances feels like a real person and one that you’d want to be friends with. Maybe a little bit of a mess, but a lot of fun.
She’s definitely not someone you think of as a stereotypical romance novel female lead. She’s big and self-possessed and middle aged. Her meet-cute involves her, mid-hot flash, screaming in her car on the side of the road. The romance novelist has become a character in one of her novels.
9 Perfect Strangers is somewhat self-referential. In what seems to be Frances’ most popular novel, the heroine faints into the hero’s arms. Similarly, Frances faints into her paramour’s lap (long before they are actually paramours). As promised with a romance novel, Moriarty delivers the Happily Ever After, but there’s nothing about it that feels far-fetched or overdone.
Frances maintains her strong sense of self and is unapologetically Frances throughout. She’s by far my favorite part of the book and she is the real reason to read the book… Not the shiny bits of hallucinogenic drugs or forced captivity, but Frances sailing her way through the book like the unsinkable Molly Brown.
Mental Illness Stigma in Masha
The weakest point of the book is Masha, the classically “crazy” villain. Yes, writing outlandish characters is fun, but making her “evil” traits the result of “insanity” is boring at best. At worst, it trivializes and stigmatizes mental illness. When things start to go off the rails, almost every one of the guests calls her some variation on crazy.
Masha is a megalomaniac with no earthly ties, a recreational drug user with something like a cousin to a death wish. While we eventually find out that she’s dealing with her own trauma, like so many of us, it feels cheap and easy to rest on calling her crazy.
In terms of actual mental illness representation, we have the Marconi family, still reeling from Zoe’s twin’s suicide. I think this story may have been my first time reading about a family after a suicide in any kind of detail. Their situation is handled with a deft hand, surprising when Masha’s treatment is so out of line. There’s grief and a hearty serving of guilt and even anger, eventually.
Mixed Feelings About How Moriarty Approaches Suicide
At the beginning of the book, the family seems stuck in their grief, not moving through it. They’ve all seemed to turn on the busy switch. If they stay busy enough, if they run enough miles and swim enough laps, or in Napoleon’s case, if he does enough suicide prevention advocacy, they’ll stay ahead of their grief.
Their progressions through their grief, expedited by the hallucinogens, feel real and raw. They’re three years out from Zach’s death but they may as well be three weeks out with how much closure they have.
Zoe’s birthday party feels triumphant and sad and like moving on. Moriarty is explicit about Zach’s manner of death, and I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, suicide contagion is a real and serious thing. Reading or hearing about the manner of death can be triggering; one internet commenter said that A Star is Born was listed on their intake paperwork for a psychiatric hospital.
And while it is difficult to compare a book that talks about a suicide in the past tense and a movie that shows the moments before, it seems very possible that reading about Zach could trigger some very dangerous feelings in at risk people.
At the same time, for the family of someone who died by suicide, the manner of death seems like it might be inextricable from the death itself. It must be dealt with as much as with the death. When a cousin of mine died by overdose, I became extremely fearful of any medication and wouldn’t take so much as Tylenol for years afterwards. It makes sense that the Marconis would need to think and talk about the method in trying to get past the death.
We have to be able to talk about suicide if we have any hope of preventing it, but how much detail is too much?
Different agencies and professionals have differing opinions on what’s okay to talk about. Those of us with a past or present of suicidal tendencies probably have our own ideas of what’s too much.
This is all to say that I’m not sure how I feel about how Moriarty talks about Zach’s death. I would certainly caution readers with suicidal tendencies to be careful when reading this book. Depending on the person, readers might want to avoid it altogether.
- Read this for Frances’ romance
- Be safe around the Marconis
- Try to move past Masha’s instability
I’ve read this book twice and I loved Frances even more the second time. There’s a chance I’ll read it a third time, for Frances, while I’m stuck quarantining with the four books I had checked out before the library closed. If you’re looking for a sweet midlife romance novel with some more serious themes, this may be the book for you.
About the Author:
Carling Mars (she/her) is a queer, genderqueer, mentally ill, disabled person (those last two go together) living in Salt Lake City with her wife, a rabbit, and a cat. Her book, feeling things in public places, is available online from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter @ohmycarling for more reviews and short fiction pieces.