An unflinchingly honest character study of a group of people looking to change their lives for the better, filled to the brim with Moriarty's trademark wit and tense atmosphere. The nine perfect strangers soon find themselves forming unbreakable bonds and undergoing entirely unexpected transformations in this perceptive page-turner.
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"I'm fine," said the woman. "There's nothing wrong with me."
She didn't look fine to Yao.
It was his first day as a trainee paramedic. His third call-out. Yao wasn't nervous, but he was in a hypervigilant state because he couldn't bear to make even an inconsequential mistake. When he was a child, mistakes had made him wail inconsolably, and they still made his stomach cramp.
A single bead of perspiration rolled down the woman's face, leaving a snail's trail through her makeup. Yao wondered why women painted their faces orange, but that was not relevant.
"I'm fine. Maybe just twenty-four-hour virus," she said, with the hint of an Eastern European accent.
"Observe everything about your patient and their environment," Yao's supervisor, Finn, had told him. "Think of yourself as a secret agent looking for diagnostic clues."
Yao observed a middle-aged, overweight woman with pronounced pink shadows under distinctive sea-green eyes and wispy brown hair pulled into a sad little knot at the back of her neck. She was pale and clammy, her breathing ragged. A heavy smoker, judging by her ashtray scent. She sat in a high-backed leather chair behind a gigantic desk. It seemed like she was something of a bigwig, if the size of this plush corner office and its floor-to-ceiling harbor views were any indication of corporate status. They were on the seventeenth floor and the sails of the Opera House were so close you could see the diamond-shaped cream and white tiles.
The woman had one hand on her mouse. She scrolled through emails on her oversized computer screen, as if the two paramedics checking her over were a minor inconvenience, repairmen there to fix a PowerPoint. She wore a tailored navy business suit like a punishment, the jacket pulled uncomfortably tight across her shoulders.
Yao took the woman's free hand and clipped a pulse oximeter onto her finger. He noted a shiny, scaly patch of reddish skin on her forearm. Pre-diabetic?
Finn asked, "Are you on any medication, Masha?" He had a chatty, loose manner with patients, as if he were making small talk at a barbecue, beer in hand.
Yao noticed that Finn always used the names of patients, whereas Yao felt shy talking to them as though they were old friends, but if it enhanced patient outcomes, he would learn to overcome his shyness.
"I am on no medication at all," said Masha, her gaze fixed on the computer. She clicked on something decisively, then looked away from her monitor and back up at Finn. Her eyes looked like they'd been borrowed from someone beautiful. Yao assumed they were colored contact lenses. "I am in good health. I apologize for taking up your time. I certainly didn't ask for an ambulance."
"I called the ambulance," said a very pretty, dark-haired young woman in high heels and a tight checked skirt with interlocking diamond shapes similar to the Opera House tiles. The skirt looked excellent on her but that was obviously of no relevance right now, even though she was, technically, part of the surrounding environment Yao was meant to be observing. The girl chewed on the fingernail of her little finger. "I'm her PA. She ... ah ..." She lowered her voice as if she were about to reveal something shameful. "Her face went dead white and then she fell off her chair."
"I did not fall off my chair!" snapped Masha.
"She kind of slid off it," amended the girl.
"I momentarily felt dizzy, that is all," said Masha to Finn. "And then I got straight back to work. Could we cut this short? I'm happy to pay your full, you know, cost or rate, or however it is you charge for your services. I have private health insurance, of course. I just really don't have time for this right now." She turned her attention back to her assistant. "Don't I have an eleven o'clock with Ryan?"
"I'll cancel him."
"Did I hear my name?" said a man from the doorway. "What's going on?" A guy in a too-tight purple shirt swaggered in carrying a bundle of manila folders. He spoke with a plummy British accent, like he was a member of the royal family.
"Nothing," said Masha. "Take a seat."
"Masha is clearly not available right now!" said the poor PA.
Yao sympathized. He didn't appreciate flippancy about matters of health, and he thought his profession deserved more respect. He also had a strong aversion to spiky-haired guys with posh accents who wore purple shirts a size too small to show off their overly developed pecs.
"No, no, just sit down, Ryan! This won't take long. I'm fine." Masha beckoned impatiently.
"Can I check your blood pressure, please, ah, Masha?" said Yao, bravely mumbling her name as he went to strap the cuff around her upper arm.
"Let's take that jacket off first." Finn sounded amused. "You're a busy lady, Masha."
"I actually really do need her sign-off on these," said the young guy to the PA in a low voice.
Yao thought, I actually really do need to check your boss's vital signs right now, motherfucker.
Finn helped Masha out of her jacket and put it over the back of her chair in a courtly way.
"Let's see those documents, Ryan." Masha adjusted the buttons on her cream silk shirt.
"I just need signatures on the top two pages." The guy held out the folder.
"Are you kidding me?" The PA lifted both hands incredulously.
"Mate, you need to come back another time," said Finn, with a definite edge to his barbecue voice.
The guy stepped back, but Masha clicked her fingers at him for the folder, and he instantly jumped forward and handed it over. He obviously considered Masha scarier than Finn, which was saying something, because Finn was a big, strong guy.
"This will take fourteen seconds at the most," she said to Finn. Her voice thickened on the word "most" so that it sounded like "mosht."
Yao, the blood-pressure cuff still in his hand, made eye contact with Finn.
Masha's head lolled to one side, as though she'd just nodded off. The manila folder slipped from her fingers.
"Masha?" Finn spoke in a loud, commanding voice.
She slumped forward, arms akimbo, like a puppet.
"Just like that!" screeched the PA with satisfaction. "That's exactly what she did before!"
"Jesus!" The purple-shirt guy retreated. "Jesus. Sorry! I'll just ..."
"Okay, Masha, let's get you onto the floor," said Finn.
Finn lifted her under the armpits and Yao took her legs, grunting with the effort. She was a very tall woman, Yao realized; much taller than him. At least six feet and a dead weight. Together he and Finn laid her on her side on the gray carpet. Finn folded her jacket into a pillow and put it behind her head.
Masha's left arm rose stiff and zombielike above her head. Her hands curled into spastic fists. She continued to breathe in jerky gasps as her body postured.
She was having a seizure.
Seizures were disquieting to watch but Yao knew you just had to wait them out. There was nothing around Masha's neck that Yao could loosen. He scanned the space around her, and saw nowhere she could bang her head.
"Is this what happened earlier?" Finn looked up at the assistant.
"No. No, before she just sort of fainted." The wide-eyed PA watched with appalled fascination.
"Does she have a history of seizures?" asked Finn.
"I don't think so. I don't know." As she spoke, the PA was shuffling back toward the door of the office, where a crowd of other corporate types had now gathered. Someone held up a mobile phone, filming, as if their boss's seizure were a rock concert.
"Start compressions." Finn's eyes were flat and smooth like stones.
There was a moment — no more than a second, but still a moment — in which Yao did nothing as his brain scrambled to process what had just happened. He would remember that moment of frozen incomprehension forever. He knew that a cardiac arrest could present with seizure-like symptoms and yet he'd still missed it because his brain had been so utterly, erroneously convinced of one reality: This patient is having a seizure. If Finn hadn't been there, Yao may have sat back on his haunches and observed a woman in cardiac arrest without acting, like an airline pilot flying a jet into the ground because he is overly reliant on his faulty instruments. Yao's finest instrument was his brain, and on this day it was faulty.
They shocked her twice but were unable to establish a consistent heart rhythm. Masha Dmitrichenko was in full cardiac arrest as they carried her out of the corner office to which she would never return.CHAPTER 2
Ten years later
On a hot, cloudless January day, Frances Welty, the formerly bestselling romantic novelist, drove alone through scrubby bushland six hours northwest of her Sydney home.
The black ribbon of highway unrolled hypnotically ahead of her as the air-conditioning vents roared arctic air full blast at her face. The sky was a giant deep blue dome surrounding her tiny solitary car. There was far too much sky for her liking.
She smiled because she reminded herself of one of those peevish TripAdvisor reviewers: So I called reception and asked for a lower, cloudier, more comfortable sky. A woman with a strong foreign accent said there were no other skies available! She was very rude about it too! NEVER AGAIN. DON'T WASTE YOUR MONEY.
It occurred to Frances that she was possibly quite close to losing her mind.
No, she wasn't. She was fine. Perfectly sane. Really and truly.
She flexed her hands around the steering wheel, blinked dry eyes behind her sunglasses, and yawned so hugely her jaw clicked.
"Ow," she said, although it didn't hurt.
She sighed, looking out the window for something to break the monotony of the landscape. It would be so harsh and unforgiving out there. She could just imagine it: the drone of blowflies, the mournful cry of crows, and all that glaring white-hot light. Wide brown land indeed.
Come on. Give me a cow, a crop, a shed. I spy with my little eye something beginning with ...
She shifted in her seat, and her lower back rewarded her with a jolt of pain so violent and personal it brought tears to her eyes.
"For God's sake," she said pitifully.
The back pain had begun two weeks ago, on the day she finally accepted that Paul Drabble had disappeared. She was dialing the number for the police and trying to work out how to refer to Paul — her partner, boyfriend, lover, her "special friend"? — when she felt the first twinge. It was the most obvious example of psychosomatic pain ever, except knowing it was psychosomatic didn't make it hurt any less.
It was strange to look in the mirror each night and see the reflection of her lower back looking as soft, white, and gently plump as it always had. She expected to see something dreadful, like a gnarled mass of tree roots.
She checked the time on the dashboard: 2:57 P.M. The turn-off should be coming up any minute. She'd told the reservations people at Tranquillum House that she'd be there around 3:30 to 4 P.M. and she hadn't made any unscheduled stops.
Tranquillum House was a "boutique health and wellness resort." Her friend Ellen had suggested it. "You need to heal," she'd told Frances after their third cocktail (an excellent white-peach Bellini) at lunch last week. "You look like shit."
Ellen had done a "cleanse" at Tranquillum House three years ago when she, too, had been "burnt out" and "run-down" and "out of condition" and — "Yes, yes, I get it," Frances had said.
"It's quite ... unusual, this place," Ellen had told Frances. "Their approach is kind of unconventional. Life-changing."
"How exactly did your life change?" Frances had asked, reasonably, but she'd never got a clear answer to that question. In the end, it all seemed to come down to the whites of Ellen's eyes, which had become really white, like, freakily white! Also, she lost three kilos! Although Tranquillum House wasn't about weight loss — Ellen was at great pains to point that out. It was about wellness, but, you know, what woman complains about losing three kilos? Not Ellen, that's for sure. Not Frances either.
Frances had gone home and looked up the website. She'd never been a fan of self-denial, never been on a diet, rarely said no if she felt like saying yes or yes if she felt like saying no. According to her mother, Frances's first greedy word was "more." She always wanted more.
Yet the photos of Tranquillum House had filled her with a strange, unexpected yearning. They were golden-hued, all taken at sunset or sunrise, or else filtered to make it look that way. Pleasantly middle-aged people did warrior poses in a garden of white roses next to a beautiful country house. A couple sat in one of the "natural hot springs" that surrounded the property. Their eyes were closed, heads tipped back, smiling ecstatically as water bubbled around them. Another photo showed a woman enjoying a "hot stone massage" on a deck chair next to an aquamarine swimming pool. Frances had imagined those hot stones placed with delightful symmetry down her own spine, their magical heat melting away her pain.
As she dreamed of hot springs and gentle yoga, a message flashed urgently on her screen: Only one place remaining for the exclusive Ten-Day Mind and Body Total Transformation Retreat! It had made her feel stupidly competitive and she clicked Book now, even though she didn't really believe there was only one place remaining. Still, she keyed in her credit card details pretty damned fast, just in case.
It seemed that in a mere ten days she would be "transformed" in ways she "never thought possible." There would be fasting, meditation, yoga, creative "emotional-release exercises." There would be no alcohol, sugar, caffeine, gluten, or dairy — but as she'd just had the degustation menu at the Four Seasons, she was stuffed full of alcohol, sugar, caffeine, gluten, and dairy, and the thought of giving them up didn't seem that big a deal. Meals would be "personalized" to her "unique needs."
Before her booking was "accepted," she had to answer a very long, rather invasive online questionnaire about her relationship status, diet, medical history, alcohol consumption in the previous week, and so on. She cheerfully lied her way through it. It was really none of their business. She even had to upload a photo taken in the last two weeks. She sent one of herself from her lunch with Ellen at the Four Seasons, holding up a Bellini.
There were boxes to tick for what she hoped to achieve during her ten days: everything from "intensive couples counseling" to "significant weight loss." Frances ticked only the nice-sounding boxes, like "spiritual nourishment."
Like so many things in life, it had seemed like an excellent idea at the time.
The TripAdvisor reviews for Tranquillum House, which she'd looked at after she'd paid her nonrefundable fee, had been noticeably mixed. It was either the best, most incredible experience people had ever had, they wished they could give it more than five stars, they were evangelical about the food, the hot springs, the staff, or it was the worst experience of their entire lives, there was talk of legal action, post-traumatic stress, and dire warnings of "enter at your own peril."
Frances looked again at the dashboard, hoping to catch the clock tick over to three.
Stop it. Focus. Eyes on the road, Frances. You're the one in charge of this car.
Something flickered in her peripheral vision and she flinched, ready for the massive thud of a kangaroo smashing her windshield.
It was nothing. These imaginary wildlife collisions were all in her head. If it happened, it happened. There probably wouldn't be time to react.
She remembered a long-ago road trip with a boyfriend. They'd come across a dying emu that had been hit by a car in the middle of a highway. Frances had stayed in the passenger seat, a passive princess, while her boyfriend got out and killed the poor emu with a rock. One sharp blow to the head. When he returned to the driver's seat he was sweaty and exhilarated, a city boy thrilled with his own humane pragmatism. Frances never quite forgave him for the sweaty exhilaration. He'd liked killing the emu.
Frances wasn't sure if she could kill a dying animal, even now when she was fifty-two years old, financially secure, and too old to be a princess.
"You could kill the emu," she said out loud. "Certainly you could."
Goodness. She'd just remembered that the boyfriend was dead. Wait, was he? Yes, definitely dead. She'd heard it through the grapevine a few years back. Complications from pneumonia, supposedly. Gary always did suffer terribly from colds. Frances had never been especially sympathetic.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Nine Perfect Strangers"
Copyright © 2018 Liane Moriarty.
Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
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