We Were Liars
225 pages (hardcover)
Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family.
No one is a criminal.
No one is an addict.
No one is a failure.
The Sinclairs are athletic, tall, and handsome. We are old-money Democrats. Our smiles are wide, our chins are square, and our tennis serves are aggressive.
So begins E. Lockhart’s much-hyped YA novel, We Were Liars. And, with these first lines, we immediately suspect that our young narrator, Cadence Sinclair, may not be terribly reliable.
Through Cadence, we meet the Sinclair family. At its head is Harris, Cadence’s grandfather, the patriarch of the Sinclair clan. He is a wealthy and powerful man who lords his wealth and power over his three useless, divorcée daughters, Carrie, Penny, and Bess. They vie for his affection (read: they try to lock down their inheritances), drink too much white wine, and bicker constantly. And, every summer, they bring their seven children and Gat (Carrie’s boyfriend’s nephew, who first summers with them the year he is eight) to the Sinclairs’ private island, Beechwood Island, a twenty-minute boat ride from Martha’s Vineyard.
Cadence is the oldest grandchild, but she, Johnny, Mirren, and Gat are all roughly the same age, having been born in the fall of the same year. The four of them are inseparable on Beechwood Island, and the rest of the family calls them, collectively, “The Liars.” They refuse to be involved with their mothers’ incessant efforts to plead their cases for this house or that piece of jewelry. Instead, they just enjoy the island and being together. They are happy.
But, then, tragedy befalls the Sinclair family on Beechwood Island. During the summer that Cadence, Johnny, Mirren, and Gat are fifteen (“summer fifteen,” they call it), Cadence has a terrible accident. She is found on the beach alone, lying in her underwear, half in the water, suffering from hypothermia. She can’t remember what happened (the doctors diagnose her memory loss and horribly painful headaches as post-traumatic amnesia and migraines), but her family, who believe that “Silence is a protective coating over pain,” refuse to speak of the accident.
Her mother (whom she calls “Mummy,” obviously) determines that Cadence should spend summer sixteen in Europe with her father, but, for summer seventeen, Cadence is ready to return to Beechwood Island to see Johnny, Mirren, and Gat, and uncover the mystery of the events surrounding her accident.
Not only is Cadence an amnesiac, but she is also highly emotional and prone to somewhat melodramatic bouts that she describes in vivid, metaphorical detail (“My head and shoulders melted first, followed by my hips and knees. Before long I was a puddle, soaking into the pretty cotton prints. I drenched the quilt she never finished, rusted the metal parts of her sewing machine. I was pure liquid loss, then, for an hour or two.”). She is also an opinionated teenager. All of these factors contribute to her being a somewhat limited narrator . . . and it is through her that we are introduced to all the other characters. There are the bad guys: Mummy, who is “delusional,” always reminds Cadence to “Be normal now. Because you are. Because you can be,” and tries to cover problems up with money, and Grandfather, who is a maxim-spouting (“We work for what we want, and we get ahead. We never take no for an answer, and we deserve the rewards of our perseverance.”) manipulator. And there are the good guys: Johnny, who is “bounce, effort and snark,” Mirren, who is “sugar, curiosity and rain,” and Gat, who is “contemplation and enthusiasm. Ambition and strong coffee.” She has them all pigeonholed just so. And, because the characters are all described exclusively by Cadence, they all come off as one-dimensional. This may be intentional, but the result is a book full of fairly flat characters.
At times, the writing style is beautiful and clever and creative (like the interspersed fairy tales that mimic the Sinclair family history). At other times, it borders on annoying. There are lots of choppy sentences and sentence fragments, sometimes with excessive paragraphing, so it verges on wannabe-poetic or somewhat reminiscent of Katherine Faw Morris’s stark style in Young God. Oddly, this combination makes for very fast and interesting (if somewhat fragmented) reading, and I devoured the book.
Any write-up or review of this book will mention that there is a big twist ending. Normally, I loathe twist endings (I’ve mentioned Gone Girl as an example of this premise on numerous occasions). Twist endings tend to be a little too gimmicky, and this book’s ridiculously gimmicky marketing tagline (“Read it. And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.”) doesn’t help matters. But (in a surprise twist!) I didn’t mind this book’s twist. The ending is a surprise, but it’s not a stupid, out-of-nowhere, makes-no-sense twist. And, while I was reading, I didn’t find myself obsessing over the possibilities (there are clues but not overly obvious ones) or rolling my eyes at the predictability of it all.
This is one of those books that was only a click or two away from being really, really great. If the characters were a little more interesting, if the writing style were a bit more cohesive, and if the plot had been a little less contrived, it could have been amazing. As it is, it’s pretty good.
The hype: So much hype for this book! A sampling:
- An Amazon Best Young Adult Book of the Month for May 2014
- The #1 LibraryReads List selection for May 2014
- Included on The Telegraph’s list of “The best young adult books for 2014”
- One of Paste Magazine’s “Best Novels of 2014 (So Far)”
Who should read it: Eds (i.e., people who enjoyed the first couple seasons of Gossip Girl and enjoy delving into the messy lives of bluebloods).
Still deciding whether you want to read it? You can read an excerpt from the beginning of the book here.
One final note: If you live in the Atlanta area, don’t forget that the fabulous and amazing AJC Decatur Book Festival is this weekend, August 29-31! You can click on that link to see the full schedule. The first session I’ll be hitting: “In Conversation with the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award Winner” at the Old Courthouse Stage on Saturday morning from 10:00 to 10:45. Karen Joy Fowler will be talking about her award-winning novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which I reviewed last December (you can read my review here). Also, if you’re available, they are still looking for volunteers to work the event (you can find me at the Kitchen Stage on Sunday afternoon!). Click here to register through Volunteer Decatur.
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- The Farm by Tom Rob Smith (a psychological thriller that was named an Amazon Best Book of the month for June 2014)
- The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (a National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for General Nonfiction; “masterfully researched and eloquently written, [this] is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary — and literary history”)