The latest must-read drama from the best-selling author of Big Little Lies.
Good to know
Now a movie
Nine people gather at a remote health resort. Some are here to lose weight, some are here to get a reboot on life, some are here for reasons they can’t even admit to themselves. Amidst all of the luxury and pampering, the mindfulness and meditation, they know these ten days might involve some real work. But none of them could imagine just how challenging the next ten days are going to be.
Frances Welty, the formerly best-selling romantic novelist, arrives at Tranquillum House nursing a bad back, a broken heart, and an exquisitely painful paper cut. She’s immediately intrigued by her fellow guests. Most of them don’t look to be in need of a health resort at all. But the person that intrigues her most is the strange and charismatic owner/director of Tranquillum House. Could this person really have the answers Frances didn’t even know she was seeking? Should Frances put aside her doubts and immerse herself in everything Tranquillum House has to offer—or should she run while she still can?
It’s not long before every guest at Tranquillum House is asking exactly the same question.
Nine Perfect Strangers
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, although the sensation was somewhat spoiled by the yellow Lamborghini purring along behind her.
How could those kids afford that car? Drug dealers? Trust-fund kids? Drug dealing seemed more likely than trust fund; neither of them had that creamy entitled look of old money.
She glanced in the rearview mirror again. From here, with her hair blowing in the wind, Jessica looked like the pretty girl she was meant to be. You couldn’t see all the procedures she’d had done to her young face. The thick layer of makeup was bad enough, but oh goodness me, the blinding white teeth, the enormous puffy lips, and the work, it was such bad work. Frances was not opposed to cosmetic procedures—in fact she was very fond of them—but there was something so sad and garish about this sweet child’s plumped-up, smoothed-out face.
Surely all that jewelry she was wearing couldn’t be real, could it? Those massive sapphires in her ears would be worth … what? Frances had no idea. A lot. The car was obviously real, though, so maybe the jewelry was real too.
Up-and-coming mobsters? YouTube stars?
The boy, Jessica’s “husband” (they seemed too young for such grown-up terms), was cute as a button. Frances would try not to flirt with him. The joke might wear thin after ten days. Possibly even bordering on … sleazy? Possibly bordering on pedophilia, darling, Alain would say. It was awful to think of lovely Ben shuddering over Frances the way Frances had once shuddered over the behavior of older male authors at publishing parties.
They used to be particularly hideous if they’d recently won a literary prize. Their dialogue was so powerful and impenetrable it didn’t require punctuation! So naturally they didn’t require permission to slip-slide their hairy hands over the body of a young writer of genre fiction. In their minds, Frances virtually owed them sex in return for her unseemly mass-market sales of “airport trash.”
Stop it. Don’t think about the review, Frances.
She’d marched in the Women’s March! She was not “a blight on feminism” just because she described the color of her hero’s eyes. How could you fall in love with someone if you didn’t know the color of his eyes? And she was obliged to tie everything up at the end with a “giant bow.” Those were the rules. If Frances left her endings ambiguous, her readers would come after her with pitchforks.
Do not think about the review. Do not think about the review.
She dragged her mind back to Ben and Jessica. So, yes, she would remember to be age-appropriate with Ben. She would pretend they were related. She’d behave like his aunt. She certainly wouldn’t touch him. My God, she hadn’t touched him already, had she? The review was making her doubt everything about herself. Her hands tightened around the steering wheel. She had a habit of touching people on the arm to make a point, or when they said something that made her laugh, or when she felt in any way fondly toward them.
At least talking with Ben and Jessica had calmed her down. She’d scared herself for a moment there. Loss of self, indeed. What a drama queen.
The road circled up toward the house. Ben politely kept his powerful car at a respectable distance behind Frances even though he probably longed to floor it on the curves.
She drove up a stately driveway lined with towering pine trees.
“Not too shabby,” she murmured.
She’d prepared herself for a seedier reality than the website pictures, but up close Tranquillum House was beautiful. The lacy white balconies glowed in the sunlight. The garden was lush and green in the summer heat, with a sign helpfully proclaiming this property uses rainwater so no one could criticize the lushness.
Two white-uniformed staff members, with the floaty, straight-backed postures of the spiritually advanced, emerged unhurriedly from the house onto the wide veranda to greet them. Perhaps they’d been off meditating while she was stuck outside the gate trying to ring them. Frances had barely come to a complete stop when her car door was opened by the man. He was young, of course, like everyone, Asian, with a hipster beard and a man bun, bright-eyed and smooth-skinned. A delightful man-kid.
“Namaste.” The man-kid pressed his palms together and bowed. “A very warm welcome to Tranquillum House.”
He spoke with a tiny … measured … pause between each word.
“I’m Yao,” he said. “Your personal wellness consultant.”
“Hello, Yao. I’m Frances Welty. Your new victim.”
She undid her seatbelt and smiled up at him. She told herself she would not laugh, or attempt to imitate his yogic voice, or let it drive her mad.
“We’ll take care of everything from here,” said Yao. “How many bags do you have?”
“Just the one,” said Frances. She indicated the back seat. “I can carry it. It’s quite light.” 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!).
“Leave your bag right there, Frances, and your keys in the ignition,” said Yao firmly.
Damn it. Oh well. Her slight embarrassment over her contraband, even though there was no way he could tell just by looking at the bag (she was normally such a good girl when it came to rules), caused her to hop out of the car awkwardly and too fast, forgetting her new fragility.
“Ooof,” she said. She straightened slowly and met Yao’s eyes. “Back pain.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Yao. “I’m going to arrange an urgent massage at the spa for you.” He took a small notepad and pencil out of his pocket and made a note.
“I also have a paper cut,” said Frances solemnly. She held up her thumb.
Yao took hold of her thumb and peered at it. “Nasty,” he said. “We’ll need to get some aloe vera on that.”
Oh God, he was gorgeous with his little notebook, taking her paper cut so seriously. She caught herself studying his shoulders and looked away fast. For God’s sake, Frances. Nobody had warned her that this would happen during middle age: these sudden, wildly inappropriate waves of desire for young men, with no biological imperative whatsoever. Maybe this was what men felt like all their lives? No wonder the poor things had to pay out all that money in lawsuits.
“And you’re here for the ten-day cleanse,” said Yao.
“That’s right,” said Frances.
“Awesome,” said Yao, causing Frances to fortunately lose all desire in an instant. She could never sleep with someone who said “awesome.”
“So … may I go inside?” asked Frances snappily. Now she felt quite ill at the thought of sex with the man-kid, or sex with anyone for that matter; she was far too hot.
She saw that Yao was distracted by the sight of Ben and Jessica’s car, or possibly by Jessica, who was standing with one hip cocked, slowly curling a long strand of hair around her finger while Ben talked to another white-uniformed wellness consultant, a young woman with skin so beautiful it looked like it was lit from within.
“That’s a Lamborghini,” said Frances.
“I know it is,” said Yao, forgetting to put the tiny pauses between his words. He gestured toward the house, stepping aside to let Frances cross the threshold first.
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.
“As you may know, Tranquillum House was built in 1840 and this is the original red-cedar and rosewood staircase,” said Yao. “Other people have commented on the resemblance to the Titanic’s staircase. So far we’ve had much better luck than the Titanic. We won’t sink, Frances!”
He’d clearly made this joke many times before. Frances gave him a more generous laugh than it deserved.
“The house was built of locally quarried sandstone by a wealthy solicitor from England.” Yao continued to recite facts like a nerdy museum guide. “He wanted a house that would be ‘the best in the colony.’”
“Built with the help of convicts, I understand,” said Frances, who had read the website.
“That’s right,” said Yao. “The solicitor was granted five hundred acres of good farming land and assigned ten convicts. He got lucky because they included two former stonemason brothers from York.”
“We have a convict in our family tree,” said Frances. “She was transported from Dublin for stealing a silk gown. We’re tremendously proud of her.”
Yao gestured away from the staircase to make it clear she wasn’t to go up there just yet. “I know you’ll want to rest after that long drive, but first I’d like to give you a quick tour of your new home for the next ten days.”
“Unless I don’t last the distance,” said Frances. Ten days suddenly seemed like a very long time. “I might go home early.”
“No one goes home early,” said Yao serenely.
“Well, yes, but they can,” said Frances. “If they choose.”
“No one goes home early,” repeated Yao. “It just doesn’t happen. No one wants to go home at all! You’re about to embark on a truly transformative experience, Frances.”
He led her to a large room at the side of the house with bay windows overlooking the valley and one long monastery-like table. “This is the dining room where you’ll come for your meals. All the guests eat together, of course.”
“Of course,” said Frances hoarsely. She cleared her throat. “Great.”
“Breakfast is served at seven a.m., lunch at noon, and dinner at six p.m.”
“Breakfast at seven a.m.?” Frances blanched. She could manage the communal meals for lunch and dinner, but she couldn’t eat and talk with strangers in the morning. “I’m a night owl,” she told Yao. “I’m normally comatose at seven a.m.”
“Ah, but that’s the old Frances—the new Frances will have already done a sunrise tai chi class and guided meditation by seven,” said Yao.
“I seriously doubt that,” said Frances.
Yao smiled, as if he knew better.
“There will be a five-minute warning bell before meals are served—or smoothies, during the fast periods. We do ask that you come promptly to the dining room as soon as you hear the warning bell.”
“Certainly,” said Frances, with a rising sense of horror. She’d quite forgotten about the “fast periods.” “Is there … ah, room service?”
“I’m afraid not, although your morning and late-evening smoothies will be brought to your room,” said Yao.
“But no club sandwiches at midnight, hey?”
Yao shuddered. “God no.”
He led her past the dining room to a cozy living room lined with bookshelves. A number of couches surrounded a marble fireplace.
“The Lavender Room,” said Yao. “You’re welcome to come here any time to relax, read, or enjoy an herbal tea.”
He said “herbal” the American way: erbal.
“Lovely,” said Frances, mollified by the sight of the books. They walked by a closed door with the word private stenciled on it in gold letters which Frances, being Frances, felt strongly compelled to open. She couldn’t abide member-only lounges to which she didn’t have membership.
“This leads to our director’s office at the top of the house.” Yao touched the door gently. “We do ask that you only open this door if you have an appointment.”
“By all means,” said Frances resentfully.
“You will meet the director later today,” said Yao, as if this were a special treat she’d been long anticipating. “At your first guided meditation.”
“Awesome,” said Frances through her teeth.
“Now you’ll want to see the gym,” said Yao.
“Oh, not especially,” said Frances, but he was already leading her back across the reception area to the opposite side of the house. “This was originally the drawing room,” said Yao. “It’s been refurbished as a state-of-the-art gym.”
“Well that is a tragedy,” Frances proclaimed when Yao opened a glass door to reveal a light-filled room crowded with what appeared to be elaborate torture devices.
Yao’s smile faltered. “We kept all the original plasterwork.” He pointed at the ceiling.
Frances gave a disdainful sniff. Marvelous. You can lie back and admire the ceiling rose while you’re being drawn and quartered.
Yao looked at her face and hurriedly closed the gym door. “Let me show you the yoga and meditation studio.” He continued past the gym to a door at the far corner of the house. “Watch your head.”
She ducked unnecessarily beneath the doorjamb and followed Yao down a flight of narrow stone stairs.
“I smell wine,” she said.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” said Yao. “It’s the ghost of old wine.”
He pushed back a heavy oak door with some effort and ushered her into a surprisingly large cavelike room with an arched wood-beamed ceiling, brick walls lined with a few chairs, and a series of soft blue rectangular mats laid out at intervals on the hardwood floor.
“This is where you will come for yoga classes and all your guided sitting meditations,” said Yao. “You’ll be spending a lot of time down here.”
It was quiet and cool, and the ghostly smell of wine was overlaid by the scent of incense. The studio did have a lovely, peaceful feel to it, and Frances thought she would enjoy being here, even though she wasn’t that keen on yoga or meditation. She had done a transcendental meditation course years ago, hoping for enlightenment, and every time, without fail, she’d nod off within two minutes of focusing on her breathing, waking up at the end to discover that everyone else had experienced ashes of light, memories of past lives, and rapture or whatever, while she’d snoozed and drooled. Basically, she’d paid to have a forty-minute nap at the local high school once a week. No doubt she would be spending a lot of time napping down here, dreaming of wine.
“At one point, when the property operated a vineyard, this cellar could hold up to twenty thousand bottles of wine.” Yao gestured at the walls, although there were no longer any facilities for keeping wine. “But when the house was originally built, it was used for storage, or as somewhere to secure misbehaving convict workers, or even to hide from bushrangers.”
“If these walls could talk,” said Frances.
Her eye was caught by a large at-screen television hanging from one of the beams at the end of the room. “What’s that screen for?” It seemed especially incongruous after Yao’s talk of the house’s early colonial history. “I thought this was a screen-free environment.”
“Tranquillum House is absolutely a screen-free environment,” agreed Yao. He glanced at the television screen with a slight frown. “But we recently installed a security and intercom system so we can all communicate with each other from different parts of the resort when necessary. It’s quite a large property and the safety of our guests is paramount.”
He changed the subject abruptly. “I’m sure you’ll be interested in this, Frances.” He ushered her over to a corner of the room and pointed to a brick almost concealed by the joinery of one of the arched beams. Frances put on her reading glasses and read out loud the small, beautifully inscribed words: Adam and Roy Webster, stonemasons, 1840.
“The stonemason brothers,” said Yao. “The assumption is that they did this secretly.”
“Good for them,” said Frances. “They were proud of their work. As they should have been.”
They silently contemplated the inscription for a few moments before Yao clapped his hands together. “Let’s head back up.”
He led her up the stairs into the house and to another glass door featuring just one beautiful word: SPA.
“Last but not least, the spa where you will come for your massages and any other wellness treatments scheduled for you.” Yao opened the door and Frances sniffed like Pavlov’s dog at the scent of essential oils.
“This was another drawing room that was remodeled,” said Yao carefully.
“Ah well, I’m sure you did a good job retaining the original features.” Frances patted his arm as she peered inside the dimly lit room. She could hear the trickling sound of a water feature and one of those ridiculous but divine “relaxation” soundtracks—the kind with crashing waves, harp music, and the occasional frog—piped through the walls.
“All spa treatments are complimentary, part of the package—you won’t receive a scary bill at the end of your stay!” said Yao as he closed the door.
“I did read that on the website but I wasn’t sure if it could be true!” said Frances disingenuously, because if it wasn’t true she would be making a complaint to the Department of Fair Trading quick-smart. She made her eyes wide and grateful, as Yao seemed to take personal pride in the wonders of Tranquillum House.
“Well, it is true, Frances,” said Yao lovingly, like a parent telling her that tomorrow really was Christmas Day. “Now we’ll just pop in here and get your blood tests and so on out of the way.”
“I’m sorry—what?” said Frances, as she was shepherded into a room that looked like a doctor’s office. She felt discombobulated. Weren’t they just talking about spa treatments?
“Just sit right here,” said Yao. “We’ll do your blood pressure first.”
Frances found herself seated as Yao wrapped a cuff around her arm and pumped it enthusiastically.
“It might be higher than usual,” he said. “People feel a little stressed and nervous when they arrive. They’re tired after their journey. It’s natural. But let me tell you, I’ve never had a guest finish their retreat without a significant drop in their blood pressure!”
“Mmm,” said Frances.
She watched Yao write down her blood pressure. She didn’t ask if it was high or low. It was often low. She had been checked out for hypotension before because of her tendency to faint. If she got dehydrated or tired, or saw blood, her vision tunneled and the world tipped.
Yao snapped on a pair of green plastic gloves. Frances looked away and focused on a point on the wall. He buckled a tourniquet around her arm and tapped her forearm.
“Great veins,” he said. Nurses often said that about Frances’s veins. She always felt momentarily proud and then kind of depressed, because what a waste of a positive attribute.
“I didn’t actually realize there would be a blood test,” said Frances.
“Daily blood tests,” said Yao cheerfully. “Very important because it means we can tweak your treatment plans accordingly.”
“Mmm, I might actually opt out of the—”
“Tiny ouch,” said Yao.
Frances looked back to her arm, and then quickly away again as she caught sight of a test tube filling with her blood. She hadn’t even registered the prick of a needle. She felt all at once as powerless as a child, and was reminded of the few times in her life she’d had to go into hospital for minor surgeries, and how much she disliked the lack of control over her body. Nurses and doctors had the right to prod at her as they pleased, with no love or desire or affection, just expertise. It always took a few days to fully reinhabit her body again.
Did this young man currently helping himself to her blood even have medical expertise? Had she really done her due diligence on this place?
“Are you trained as a …?” She was trying to say, “Do you know what the hell you’re doing?”
“I used to be a paramedic in a previous life,” replied Yao.
She met his eyes. Was he possibly a little mad? Did he mean he was a reincarnated paramedic? You never knew with these alternative types. “You don’t mean, literally, a previous life?”
Yao laughed out loud. A very normal-sounding laugh. “It was about ten years ago now.”
“Do you miss it?”
“Absolutely not. I’m passionate about the work we do here.” His eyes blazed. Maybe just slightly mad.
“Right, that’s that,” said Yao, removing the needle and handing her a cottonwool ball. “Press firmly.” He labeled her test tube and smiled at her. “Excellent. Now, we’ll just check your weight.”
“Oh, is that really necessary? I’m not here for weight loss; I’m here for, you know … personal transformation.”
“Just for our files,” said Yao. He removed the cottonwool ball, pressed a circular Band-Aid onto the tiny red pinprick, and indicated a scale. “On you hop.”
Frances averted her eyes from the number. She had no idea of her weight and no interest in learning it. She knew she could be thinner, and of course when she was younger she was indeed much thinner, but she was generally happy with her body as long as it wasn’t giving her pain, and bored by all the different ways women droned on about the subject of weight, as if it were one of the great mysteries of life. The recent weight-losers, evangelical about whatever method had worked for them, the thin women who called themselves fat, the average women who called themselves obese, the ones desperate for her to join in their lavish self-loathing. “Oh, Frances, isn’t it just so depressing when you see young, thin girls like that!” “Not especially,” Frances would say, adding extra butter to her bread roll.
Yao wrote something on a form in a cream-colored file marked in black marker block letters with her name, FRANCES WELTY.
This was starting to feel too much like a visit to the doctor. Frances felt exposed and vulnerable and regretful. She wanted to go home. She wanted a muffin.
“I’d really like to get to my room now,” she said. “It was a long drive.”
“Absolutely. I’m going to book you into the spa for an urgent massage for that back pain,” said Yao. “Shall I give you half an hour to settle into your room, enjoy your welcome smoothie, and read your welcome pack?”
“That sounds like heaven,” said Frances.
They walked back past the dining room, where her darling drug dealers, Jessica and Ben, stood with their own white-uniformed wellness consultant, a dark-haired young woman who, according to her name badge, was called Delilah. Delilah was delivering the same spiel as Yao about the warning bells.
Jessica’s plastic face was filled with worry, so much so that she was almost, but not quite, pulling off a frown. “But what if you don’t hear the bell?”
“Then off with your head!” said Frances.
Everyone turned to look at her. Ben, whose cap was now the wrong way around again, raised a single eyebrow.
“Joke,” said Frances weakly.
Frances saw the two wellness consultants exchange looks she couldn’t quite read. She wondered if they were sleeping together. They’d have such aerobic, flexible sex with all that wellness pumping through their young bodies. It would be just so awesome.
Yao led her back toward the Titanic stairs. As Frances hurried to keep pace, they passed a man and two women coming down the staircase together, all three in olive-green robes featuring the Tranquillum House emblem.
The man lagged behind to put on glasses so he could closely examine the wall on the landing. He was so tall the dressing gown was more like a miniskirt, revealing knobbly knees and very white, very hairy legs. They were the sort of male legs that made you feel uncomfortable, as if you were looking at a private part of the body.
“Well, my point is that you just don’t see craftsmanship like this anymore!” he said, as he peered at the wall. “That’s what I just love about houses like this: the attention to detail. I mean, think of those tiles I was showing you earlier. What’s extraordinary is that somebody took the time to individually—hello again, Yao! Another guest, is it? How are you?”
He took off his glasses, beamed at Frances, and thrust out his hand. “Napoleon!” he cried.
It took her a terrifying second to realize he was introducing himself, not just yelling out a random historical figure’s name.
“Frances,” she said in the nick of time.
“Nice to meet you! Here for the ten-day retreat, I assume?”
He was on the stair above her, so his height was even more pronounced. It was like tipping her head back to look at a monument.
“I am.” Frances made a tremendous effort not to comment on his height, as she knew from her six-foot friend Jen that tall people were well aware they were tall. “I most certainly am.”
Napoleon indicated the two women farther down the stairs. “Us too! These are my beautiful girls, my wife, Heather, and daughter, Zoe.” The two women were also notably tall. They were a basketball team.
They gave her the restrained, polite smiles of a celebrity’s family members who are used to having to wait while he is accosted by fans, except that in this case it was Napoleon doing the accosting. The wife, Heather, bounced on the balls of her feet. She was wiry, with extremely wrinkled, tanned skin, as if she’d been scrunched up and then spread smooth. Heather skin like leather, thought Frances. That was a really mean mnemonic but Heather would never know. Heather had gray hair pulled back in a tight ponytail and bloodshot eyes. She seemed very intense, which was fine. Frances had some intense friends; she knew how to cope with intensity. (Never try to match it.)
The daughter, Zoe, had her dad’s height and the casual grace of an athletic, outdoorsy girl. Showy Zoe? But she wasn’t showy at all. Not showy Zoe. Zoe certainly didn’t look like she was in need of a health resort. How much more rejuvenated could you get?
Frances thought about the young couple, Ben and Jessica, who also seemed in sparkling good health. Were health resorts only attended by the already healthy? Was she going to be the least healthy-looking person here? She’d never been bottom of the class, except for that one time in Transcendental Meditation for Beginners.
“We thought we’d explore the hot springs, maybe have a quick soak,” said Napoleon to Yao and Frances, as if they’d asked. “Then we’ll do a few laps of the pool.”
Clearly, they were one of those active families who threw their bags down on the floor and left their hotel room the moment they checked in.
“I’m planning a quick nap before an urgent massage,” said Frances.
“Excellent idea!” cried Napoleon. “A nap and a massage! Sounds perfect! Isn’t this place amazing? And I hear the hot springs are incredible.” He was an extremely enthusiastic man.
“Make sure you rehydrate after the hot springs,” Yao said to him. “There are water bottles at reception.”
“Will do, Yao! And then we’ll be back in time for the noble silence!”
“Noble silence?” said Frances.
“It will all become clear, Frances,” said Yao.
“It’s in your information pack, Frances!” said Napoleon. “Bit of a surprise; I wasn’t expecting the ‘silence’ aspect. I’ve heard of silent retreats, of course, but must admit they didn’t appeal—I’m a talker myself, as my girls here will tell you. But we’ll roll with the punches, go with the flow!”
As he talked on in the comforting way of the chronically loquacious, Frances watched his wife and daughter farther down the stairs. The daughter, who wore black flip-flops, put one heel on the step above her and leaned forward as if she were discreetly stretching her hamstring. The mother watched her daughter, and Frances saw the ghost of a smile, followed almost immediately by an expression of pure despair that dragged all her features down, as if she were clawing at her cheeks. Then in the next instant it was gone and she smiled benignly up at Frances, and Frances felt as though she had seen something she shouldn’t have.
Napoleon said, “It wasn’t you who arrived in that Lamborghini, was it, Frances? I saw it from our room. That’s one hell of a car.”
“Not me—I’m the Peugeot,” said Frances.
“Nothing wrong with the Peugeot! Although I hear those jackals charge like wounded bulls when it comes to servicing, right?”
He mixed his metaphors most delightfully. Frances was keen to talk more with him. He was someone who would answer any question with candor and vigor. She loved those sorts of people.
“Dad,” said his daughter. Not-showy Zoe. “Let the lady pass. She’s only just got here. She probably wants to get to her room.”
“Sorry, sorry, I’ll see you at dinner! Although we won’t be chatting then, will we?” He tapped the side of his nose and grinned, but there was a trapped, panicky look in his eyes. “Lovely to meet you!” He clapped Yao on the shoulder. “See you later, Yao, mate!”
Frances followed Yao up the stairs. At the top, he turned right and led her down a carpeted hallway lined with historical photos that she planned to study later.
“This wing of the house was added in 1895,” said Yao. “You’ll find all the rooms have original fireplaces with marble mantelpieces of Georgian design. Not that you’ll be lighting any fires in this heat.”
“I didn’t expect to see families doing this retreat,” commented Frances. “I must admit I thought there’d be more … people like me.”
Fatter people than me, Yao. Much fatter.
“We get people from all walks of life here at Tranquillum House,” said Yao as he unlocked her room with a large old-fashioned metal key.
“Probably not all walks of life,” mused Frances, because come on now, the place wasn’t cheap, but she stopped talking as Yao held open the door for her.
“Here we are.”
It was a large, airy, plush-carpeted room filled with period furniture, including an enormous four-poster bed. Open French doors led to a balcony with a view that stretched to the horizon: a rolling patchwork quilt of vineyards and farmhouses and green-and-gold countryside. Flocks of birds wheeled across the sky. Her bag sat like an old familiar friend in a corner of the room. There was a fruit basket on the coffee table, along with a glass of green sludgelike smoothie with a strawberry on the side. Everything except the smoothie looked extremely appealing.
“That’s your welcome smoothie there,” said Yao. “There are six organic smoothies a day, prepared specifically for your changing individual needs.”
“They’re not wheatgrass, are they? I once had a wheatgrass shot and it scarred me for life.”
Yao picked up the glass and handed it to her. “Trust me, it’s tasty!”
Frances looked at it doubtfully.
“The smoothies are mandatory,” said Yao kindly. It was confusing because you’d think from his tone that he’d said, “They are optional.”
She took a sip. “Oh!” she said, surprised. She could taste mango, coconut, and berries. It was like drinking a tropical holiday. “It’s quite good. Very good.”
“Yes, Frances,” said Yao. He used her name as often as a desperate real estate agent. “And the good news is it’s not only delicious but brimming with natural goodness! Please make sure you drink the entire glass.”
“I will,” said Frances agreeably.
There was an awkward pause.
“Oh,” said Frances. “You mean now?” She took another, larger sip. “Yum!”
Yao smiled. “The daily smoothies are crucial for your wellness journey.”
“Gosh, well, I want to keep my wellness journey on track.”
“Absolutely you do,” said Yao.
She met his eyes. There was no irony as far back as she could see. He was going to shame that snark right out of her.
“I’m going to leave you to relax,” said Yao. “Your welcome pack is right here. Please take the time to read it because there are important instructions for the next twenty-four hours. The noble silence that Napoleon mentioned will be beginning shortly, and I know you’re going to find that so beneficial. Oh, now, speaking of silence, Frances, I’m sure you can guess what I need next from you!” He looked at her expectantly.
“No idea. Not more blood, I hope?”
“It’s time to hand over all your electronic devices,” said Yao. “Mobile phone, tablets, everything.”
“No problem.” Frances retrieved her phone from her handbag, switched it off, and handed it to Yao. A not unpleasant feeling of subservience crept over her. It was like being on an airplane once the seatbelt sign was turned on and the flight attendants were now in charge of your entire existence.
“Great. Thanks. You’re officially ‘off the grid!’” Yao held up her phone. “We’ll keep it safe. Some guests say the digital detox is one of the most enjoyable elements of their time with us. When it’s time to leave, you’ll be saying, ‘Don’t give it back! I don’t want it back!’” He held up his hands to indicate someone waving him away.
Frances tried to imagine herself in ten days and found it strangely difficult, as if it wasn’t ten days but ten years she was imagining. Would she really be transformed? Thinner, lighter, pain-free, able to leap from her bed at sunrise without caffeine?
“Don’t forget your massage at the spa,” said Yao. “Oh—and that nasty paper cut!”
He walked to a sideboard, selected a tube from an array of Tranquillum House–branded cosmetics, and said, “Let’s see that thumb.”
Frances presented it to him and he placed a dab of soothing cool gel on her paper cut with tender care.
“Your wellness journey has begun, Frances,” he said, still holding her hand, and instead of smirking Frances found herself close to tears.
“I’ve actually been feeling very unwell lately, Yao,” she said pitifully.
“I know you have.” Yao put both his hands on her shoulders and it didn’t feel silly or sexual; it felt healing. “We’re going to get you well, Frances. We’re going to get you feeling as well as you’ve ever felt in your life.” He closed the door gently behind him as he left.
Frances turned in a slow circle and waited for that inevitable moment of solitary traveler gloom, but instead her spirits lifted. She wasn’t alone. She had Yao to take care of her. She was on a wellness journey.
She walked out onto her balcony to admire the view and gasped. A man on the balcony next to hers was leaning so far over it he looked in danger of falling.
“Careful!” she warned, but only under her breath so as not to startle him.
The man turned in her direction, lifted his hand, and smiled. It was Ben. She recognized the baseball cap. She waved back.
If they raised their voices they could probably hear each other perfectly well, but it was better to pretend they were too far away to chat, otherwise they’d feel obligated to talk every time they happened to see each other on their balconies, and there was going to be enough obligatory chatting at every meal.
She looked in the other direction and saw a row of identical balconies stretching to the end of the house. All the guest rooms shared this same view. The other balconies were empty, although as Frances watched, the figure of a woman emerged from the room at the farthest end of the house. She was too far away to distinguish her features, but Frances, keen to be friendly, gave her a wave. The woman instantly spun around and went back inside her room.
Oh, well, perhaps she hadn’t seen Frances. Or perhaps she suffered from tremendous social anxiety. Frances could handle the dreadfully shy. You just needed to approach slowly, as if they were little woodland creatures.
Frances turned back to Ben, and saw that he’d also gone back inside. She wondered if he and Jessica were still arguing. Their rooms were adjoining, so if things got heated Frances might overhear. Once, on a book tour, she’d stayed in a thin-walled hotel where she had the pleasure of overhearing a couple argue passionately and descriptively about their sex life. That had been great.
“I don’t get the obsession with strangers,” her first husband, Sol, once said to her, and Frances had struggled to explain that strangers were by definition interesting. It was their strangeness. The not-knowing. Once you knew everything there was to know about someone, you were generally ready to divorce them.
She went back inside her room to unpack. It might be nice to have a cup of tea and a few squares of chocolate while she read her information pack. She was sure it was going to have rules she would prefer not to follow; the noble silence that was beginning shortly sounded foreboding and she would need sugar to cope. Also, she hadn’t exactly followed the suggestion about reducing her sugar and caffeine intake in the days leading up to the retreat so as to avoid withdrawal symptoms. Frances couldn’t be dealing with a headache right now.
She went to pull out her contraband from where she’d carefully hidden it right at the bottom of her bag, underneath her underwear, wrapped in her nightie. She’d laughed at herself for hiding it; it wasn’t like they were going to be checking her bag. This wasn’t rehab or boarding school.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” she said out loud.
It wasn’t there.
She emptied all her clothes onto her bed with a growing sense of fury. They wouldn’t, would they? It was unconscionable. Illegal, surely.
It was very bad manners!
She turned the bag upside down and shook it. The nightie was still there, neatly folded by invisible hands, but the coffee, tea, chocolate, and wine were most definitely gone. Who had been through her bag? It couldn’t be Yao; he’d been with her the whole time from when she arrived. Someone else had rifled through her underwear and confiscated her treats.
What could she do? She couldn’t ring reception and say, “Somebody took my chocolate and wine!” Well, she could, but she didn’t have the requisite chutzpah. The website made it clear that snacks and coffee and alcohol were all banned. She’d broken the rules and she’d been caught.
She would say nothing and they would say nothing and on the last day they would hand it all back to her with a knowing smirk as she checked out, like returning a prisoner’s personal effects.
This was deeply embarrassing.
She sat on the end of her bed and looked dolefully at the lovely fruit bowl. She laughed a little, trying to turn it into a funny story her friends would enjoy, and selected a mandarin from the bowl. As she plunged her thumb into its fleshy center, she heard something. A voice? It didn’t come from Ben and Jessica’s room. It was the other room adjoining hers. There was a thud, followed immediately by the unmistakable sound of something breaking.
A male voice swore, loudly and forcefully. “Fuck it!”
Indeed, thought Frances, as the malevolent beginnings of a headache crept slowly across her forehead.
Why I love it
Every Liane Moriarty novel is different, but the experience of reading one provides the same reliable mainstays: exhaustion (because I’ll be up until 2am reading), awe (at her ability to create characters so real it feels like she’s raided my inner life), and jealousy (because, well, nobody should be allowed to write that well). As a die-hard fan, I thought I knew what to expect with Nine Perfect Strangers. But I had no idea.
Nine strangers book a detox at a resort a few hours' drive from Sydney. All bear the scars of previous emotional or physical crises, which are revealed—often very movingly—as the guests settle into their new surroundings. From the outset, though, there's an insidious feeling of unease, which you shouldn't ignore: It's going to explode into full-blown madness by the halfway mark.
It was the cast of characters that I fell in love with, initially—so human; so lost; so damaged, funny, and absurd—but their journeys were unlike any I’ve been on with Moriarty before. The story is both far-fetched and chillingly plausible, darkly funny, and, above all, utterly gripping. You won’t be able to put it down.
Member ratings (18,195)
Normally, I’m not a huge fan of this author but decided to give this book a chance and I’m glad I did! Finished this book in 3 days! Love her characters & couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.
Wow. The character development was amazing. I loved how the book progressed and the story just kept you locked in with the “I can’t believe”s or “omg she’s nuts!”. Thoroughly enjoyed this read!
Ashland , OH
I loved reading Liane Moriarty’s books. Her observations about life are always spot on. I laughed, cried, got mad, and couldn’t put this book down. All the feels really. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
I wasn’t surprised with how much I loved this because I’m obsessed with Liane Moriarty. She does a beautiful job of weaving all the characters story lines together and thoroughly keeping you engaged.
I just love Liane Moriarty’s ability to describe characters... and even with so many characters, I felt like I started to get them all. It wasn’t my favorite of her books, but still really enjoyed it.