An ode to the pop-fiction palate cleanser

I decided to try it at an airport, because… I was already drinking a bloody, you know? Anyway I loved it, practically inhaled it, and passed it on to a friend. She was looking for a pick-me-up, had been into the hard stuff lately. Pretty soon I found another friend who liked it, and a week later, a third confessed: She’d needed it, needed the break from reality.

So there you have it. If you’re looking for a reprieve from life’s daily frustrations, Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies is an almost guaranteed conduit to temporary nirvana. 


Now an HBO miniseries, Big Little Lies is about a handful of mothers in a small coastal town where a murder has just occurred. With wry police statements from various town characters, and glimpses into the events from the perspectives of the women, Moriarty creates a nice little whodunit spliced with a commentary on modern maternity.

As novels go, Big Little Lies isn’t life-altering;  it’s just super enjoyable to read. So were In a Dark Dark Wood and The Woman in Cabin 10, bestsellers by British author Ruth Ware that felt like sped-up CW shows about intrepid girl-next-door heroines in the wrong place at the wrong time. Megan Abbott’s The Fever was strange, but I finished it on a Sunday afternoon. The Husband’s Secret (Moriarty again) got me through nine evening commutes.

In my own literary choices at least, the past half-decade has been an exercise in horizon-broadening: In addition to all the requisite literary fiction, I’ve enjoyed a lot of great books that I probably wouldn’t have read even a few years ago. I’ve developed an interest in science writing. I’m reading presidential biographies by choice. Honestly, I don’t even know who I am anymore.

But I have always held, and will always hold, a place in my heart for the books I read between those other books. The books I read because I want, for a little bit, to forget about all the horrible shit that has happened, or is happening, or will probably happen in the future. To forget about the terrible things people do to each other, physically and mentally and emotionally, and all the ways in which relationships between people can be annoying, tenuous, or outright disastrous. Or at least, if I have to think about any of those things, then books that make them entertaining.


A few years ago, in what will probably reveal itself to be my professional peak, I interviewed RL Stine over lunch in SoHo, like the bougie Sex and the City disciple I always knew I could be (I walked the wrong way twice and arrived late and sweating profusely but whatever). Stine’s books are what made elementary-school me a lifelong reader, and of the many sage things he said that day β€””Eat some of my fries, please!”β€”was a classically Upper West Side observation about why so many adults read young-adult fiction: “It’s for the story. These books don’t have all the excess. People don’t have that much time.”

There’s a lot to be said for “all the excess,” But Stine is also right. We don’t have much time. (Btw, did I successfully execute that whole humblebrag? I thought it went pretty smoothly.) There are jobs and classes to attend to, social obligations and obligation obligations to deal with. Checkout lines to stand in, subway lines to stand in, lunch lines to stand in (I might be spending too much of my life in lines?) Time is precious, and it’s tempting to spend all of one’s reading hours trying to keep up with the endless array of phenomenal fiction and nonfiction that comes out each year. It’s tempting to always use books to learn something, or feel something, or best of all, to feel something while learning something.

But 2017 comes with no shortage of opportunities to learn, feel, or do both while quietly hoarding a supply of potable water for the impending apocalypse. My advice is to make sure you’re also taking a breather, kicking back, and reliving those halcyon days when reading didn’t so often tighten that inner coil of cynicism and hopelessness. When a book called My Teacher Is an Alien was actually about a substitute from outer space. Yes, trying times call for great, important books. But I posit that they also call for escapist ones, for books that give you room and space to exhale. In other words, it’s okay to get into the hard stuff; just keep an open mind at the airport.

2 thoughts on “An ode to the pop-fiction palate cleanser”

  1. It’s so nice to know that I’m not the only one who needs a break from serious reads every now and then. I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself to read all the classics I didn’t read (or never finished) in college. Then I end up getting burnt out because, let’s face it, classic literature is pretty damn bleak. There’s something to be said for a fast-paced read that gets your mind off of things and reminds you to enjoy reading again. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Read this last year, along with The Husband’s Secret… but that’s because I have a ratio of 3 ‘junk novels’ for every serious fiction or non-fiction that I tackle. I have both of Ruth Ware’s books cued up… Then there’s the always wonderful ‘cross-over’ category i.e. reading Matt Taibbi’s latest feels both intellectual and fun.

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