The story centers around three mothers: Madeline, the spunky leader of the trio who is still coming to grips with the failure of her first marriage; Celeste, a woman who has a rich successful husband who treats her like a queen...or so it seems; and Jane, a woman who became a mother at a very young age and is struggling to fit in with all the other seemingly perfect mothers/wives.
There are three main plot threads:
1. Celeste's husband Perry has a violent temper that he takes out on her.
2. Jane's son Ziggy has been accused of beating a girl named Amabella, but no-one is entirely sure if it's true.
3. At the upcoming parents' and teachers' trivia night, someone will be killed.
It was adapted into an Emmy-winning HBO series (created by David E. Kelley and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée) starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, and Zoë Kravitz. Despite being originally announced as a limited series, the show's success prompted a second season renewal, with Meryl Streep joining the cast. Tropes specific to the series have been moved to its own page.
Contains the following tropes:
- Adapted Out: Fred, Madeline and Ed's son.
- All Abusers Are Male: Though the story is clear that not all men are abusers and Perry, the abuser, turns out to be far more complicated and sympathetic than the usual examples. Subverted in the end when Celeste meets a man who was abused by a woman. This detail however is left out of the series.
- All of the Other Reindeer: Jane and Ziggy get this from the other parents, save for Madeline and Celeste.
- Almighty Mom: The wives and mothers have all the power. The only one who outranks them is Tom the café owner.
- Artistic License Biology: Might be In-Universe, but Ed and Madeline talk about Perry's damaged urethra like it's a bone.
- Beware the Nice Ones:
- When her son is mistreated, Jane flips out and shows that she will not be a doormat.
- Ed gives Nathan a talking to, politely informing him that he will not tolerate any slights against Madeline. Nathan is thoroughly freaked out by it.
- In the end it's Bonnie the Granola Girl who kills Perry, rushing to the other women's defence.
- Big-Bad Ensemble: Renata and Perry are portrayed as the biggest antagonists, though Renata is not so villainous.
- Bittersweet Ending: Celeste's conclusion is portrayed the most tragically; with her husband dead she can no longer afford to live among her friends and moves to a cheaper part of Sydney. Her sons and in-laws are all grieving for a man that they dearly loved. But Celeste is ultimately shown to be doing much better.
- Broken Bird: All three leads are this in some regard.
- Celeste is a victim of domestic violence but everyone else thinks of her as the perfect wife and mother.
- Madeline was a young mother who had one failed marriage, and the second one isn't faring much better.
- Jane was a victim of date rape, which produced Ziggy, and she's implied to have a difficult relationship with her own mother.
- Bumbling Dad: Madeline's two husbands are both this to some extent. The first was absent during their daughter's formative years and the second is friendly but awkward.
- Contrived Coincidence: What are the odds that Jane would move to where her rapist lives and become friends with his wife? In the book, however, it's explained that Perry told her he was going to be living there and that she moves there in hopes of finding closure.
- Doting Parent: Most of the drama comes from all the mothers being overprotective.
- Drowning My Sorrows: Jane's reaction to her first boyfriend, Zach, breaking up with her. This ultimately leads to her being taken advantage of.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Celeste affirms that Perry would never hurt the children, whom he genuinely loves. It should also be noted that Perry hates losing control on Celeste and looks sincerely horrified every time he hits her.
- Everybody Did It: Perry started attacking Celeste which caused Jane, Madeline, and Renata to start attacking him in retaliation before Bonnie delivered the fatal push.
- The Friends Who Never Hang: Out of the three protagonists, Jane and Celeste are rarely alone together.
- Freudian Trio: Madeline is The Id, Jane is The Ego and Celeste is The Super Ego.
- Good Parents: All the characters have this in common, bar Madeline's ex-husband Nathan who only recently decided to take some responsibility.
- Happy Marriage Charade: Celeste and Perry seem like the perfect couple, but there's domestic abuse going on behind closed doors.
- Heel Realization: Renata realises how much she's screwing with Ziggy by allowing the mud slinging to go on, and makes peace with Jane.
- Hippie Parents: Nathan and his much younger wife Bonnie.
- Intimate Open Shirt: Perry is like this whenever he wants to do it with Celeste.
- Jerk Justifications: Madeline, Perry and Renata have these.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Madeline is pretty rude and snitty to a lot of people, but she is very loyal and cares deeply for her friends.
- Last Minute Hookup: Jane and Tom.
- Little Miss Snarker: Madeline's younger daughter Chloe, who borders on Only Sane Man at times. She's six.
- Men Don't Cry: A noteworthy aversion coming from Perry, of all people. The floodgates burst open after the murder is committed.
- Mistaken for Gay: Madeline mistakenly thinks Tom is gay. This turns into a Brick Joke in the finale when he asks Jane out and she replies "you're straight?" - prompting a Flat "What".
- My Beloved Smother: Madeline smothers Abigail quite a bit, though it is more complicated; she wants her daughter to do well and learns to back off and stop helicoptering.
- Mysterious Parent: The identity of Ziggy's father. It's Perry.
- Not-So-Small Role: Bonnie pops up to seemingly just be a Foil to Madeline and do very little else. Until she's the one that delivers the killing blow against Perry.
- One Steve Limit: Subverted. Jane's rapist told her his name was Saylon. She looks up a man with that name and it's not him. Since his name was actually Perry, it's a Double Subversion.
- Parental Neglect: Nathan used to be a negligent father before meeting Bonnie. It agitates Madeline that Abigail still favours him over her for this very reason.
- The Proud Elite: Celeste and Perry, though that's just on the surface.
- Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil:
- Madeline reacts this way when she finds out that Jane was sexually abused and impregnated, which derailed her future.
- Her 14-year-old daughter Abigail feels pretty strongly as well to the point where she'd auction off her virginity for charity.
- Romantic Runner-Up: Ed repeatedly calls Madeline out for making him feel like he's this to her.
- Romantic Two-Girl Friendship: Madeline with Celeste and Jane. She's incredibly close and affectionate with them.
- The Shrink: Awesome variety. The therapist Celeste and Perry visit realises that Perry is abusive and proceeds to do everything to help Celeste come to terms with it and leave.
- The Starscream: Harper. Renata at least has the excuse that Ziggy allegedly choked her daughter to be wary of him, Harper is just a little sycophant bitch AND the one who starts the petition to get Ziggy suspended.
- There Are No Therapists: Averted. Celeste goes to one when Perry's back is turned and gradually gains the confidence to stand up to him.
- Tonight, Someone Dies: The murder victim is not revealed until the finale.
- Twin Desynch: Celeste's twins are pretty much treated as one unit until it's revealed that Max is Amabella's attacker.