Published by Delacorte Press on May 13, 2014
Pages: 240 pages
Amazon • Indiebound • Barnes & Noble • Goodreads
A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from National Book Award finalist and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart.
And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.
We Were Liars was not for me. Some folks will undoubtedly like it – and I picked it up because I started seeing recommendations for it everywhere – but it was almost a DNF for me (a rare feat for a book). I had to force myself to finish it.
Here’s the premise: four teenagers whose respective families call them “The Liars.” They spend their summers together on a private island and are mostly white and upper-crusty (with the exception of Gat, and we will get to him later). They have lots of money and lots of problems (mostly caused by too much money and crazy awful parenting). Our narrator, Cadence Sinclair Eastman, says of her family: “We are Sinclairs. No one is needy. No one is wrong.” This gives you a decent idea of the family’s prevailing philosophy: Sinclairs are beautiful and perfect and wealthy and super invested in being beautiful and perfect and wealthy. You can see where this is going from a thousand miles away. You can see where it’s going from another continent; you can see where it’s going from space. If you are interested in stories about rich kids and secret pain and terrible decisions, this is the novel for you.
The novel opens with the sense that something went Terribly Wrong two summers ago and now Cadence has migraines and no memories of what happened. Her doctors and her mother are close-mouthed around her and insist that she needs to remember on her own, so as readers, we know that this is our task as well. Cadence is returning to the beach and reuniting with the Liars for the first time in two years. What will she discover about the summer where everything went wrong? (Let me be clear: this was the most enjoyable part of the novel for me; I love playing detective.)
Here are a few of the problems I had with the novel.
1. The writing. I know that some people found Lockhart’s prose to be lyrical, but I found it stilted and awkward. For example, a description of Cadence’s cousin Mirren is as follows: “Mirren, she is sugar, curiosity, and rain.” To be clear: I don’t have a problem with poetic language, I just want it to do work (or if the work it’s doing is to be intentionally meaningless, I want that – the meaningless of someone’s characterization – to have meaning in the novel). What does “sugar, curiosity, and rain” tell me about Mirren in this book? Not a lot. Johnny is “bounce, effort, and snark;” Gat is “contemplation and enthusiasm. Ambition and strong coffee.” It’s not evocative if what you’re evoking doesn’t make sense; this isn’t a game of Mad-Libs. (If it is, though, dibs on “Layla is cats, tea, and stubbornness.” Bam!)
Furthermore – though this made slightly more sense to me – I hated that I couldn’t always tell what precisely was happening in the novel. Here’s a pop quiz! Read the following and try to guess whether it’s a metaphor or not: “He pulled out a handgun and shot me in the chest. I was standing on the lawn and I fell. … Blood gushed rhythmically from my own wound / then from my eyes, / my ears, / my mouth.” Did you get it? It’s a metaphor! Jesus. If I called my mother and told her that blood was gushing rhythmically from my open wound and tasted like salt and failure, I think she’d tell me to go to the E.R. and not stop to wonder about whether I was simply taking some poetic license with my bad day. Anyway. I knew about this in advance – courtesy of Khanh on GR – but didn’t know how prevalent it’d be. It happens time and time again and sometimes it’s just a metaphor and sometimes it’s really real. Although I can understand the purpose this lack of clarity serves – we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator whose own sense of reality is fairly foggy at the moment – it didn’t really work for me. Cadence doesn’t know what’s happening and I get that, but as a reader, I found not knowing what was happening to be incredibly frustrating.
2. The characters. While I actively disliked every character in this book (except Gat), that’s not really a good way to measure whether a book is good or not. (There are plenty of excellent books about awful people.) Instead, with the exception of the narrator, I didn’t feel like I understood anything about any of the characters. Johnny is … a boy cousin. Mirren is … a girl cousin. Who makes up a story about having a boyfriend. Gat is … the only character in this book who isn’t absolutely awful. It’s also unclear what their affiliation as Liars means in the context of the novel – outside of the fact that our narrator is unreliable – because they’ve been called Liars for years and years. Why? This never makes sense to me. (Is it supposed to indicate their complicity in their parents’ and grandparents’ lies about their family’s perfection? That’s the only thing that I can think of, but it doesn’t make sense View Spoiler »because The Liars don’t seem to want to be complicit, i.e., the novel’s surprise ending – they want to set fire to the rain and to their family’s ancestral home.) « Hide Spoiler
Can I also say that they’re all horrible, though? Any time Gat (who isn’t a Sinclair) tries to bring up how screwed up the Liars’ politics are, he gets shot down. For example: “’Stop talking now,’ said Mirren. ‘Stop talking, forever,’ said Johnny. … ‘Shut up,’ I said. ‘I’ll give you more chocolate if you shut up.'” How does the novel deal with this? Gat is understandably upset and feels like he’s being shut down (he is). Cadence’s response to this is to say, “When we say Shut Up, Gat, that isn’t what we mean at all. … What we mean is, we love you. You remind us that we’re selfish bastards. You’re not one of us, that way.” And like … this kind of bothers me. One, this conversation allows them to continue being assholes and doesn’t ask them to change the way they think or talk to Gat – he’s the one who needs to change what he’s hearing (i.e., Cadence tries to teach him how to re-read what they’re saying, but whether they need to think about NOT SAYING IT is never in question). And this is fucked up to me. It’s an acknowledgment that they’re being awful without actually taking steps to change that. The second thing that bothers me is that Gat’s character – as it is – seems to exist in this universe to make Cadence and the Liars better people. (And this is also fucked up. Here’s an example: it’s like every Nicholas Sparks novel where the point of the inevitably doomed female love interest is to make the man into a better man. In this case, the emotional / spiritual development of white upper-class people is what we care about, right?)
3. The Ending. View Spoiler » I didn’t see all of this coming – I had no idea that all of the Liars except Cadence were dead. What happens: they decide to destroy the house that is a symbol of the Sinclairs’ perfection by setting fire to it. They all decide to set fire to different rooms at the same time, which is pretty much the dumbest thing ever. Why not just have everyone douse the house in some kind of accelerant, reconvene outside, and then start your fire? Yes, they’re teenagers. Yes, they’re drunk. But setting fire to the house WHILE YOU’RE STILL INSIDE IT seems like a clearly terrible idea! So everyone dies except Cadence. This is fine, but:
Most of the novel seems rooted in predictable human evil – the perils of having too much money, power corrupts, whatever – at the end of the novel, we’re supposed to believe (it seems to me) that Cadence is actually communing with the ghosts of her dead cousins and her dead boyfriend. They can’t just be lies that she’s telling herself until she comes to realize her role in the accident, because she continues to see them and speak to them even after she realizes that they’re dead. And they’re like, “Oh hey, yes, we’re dead. Sorry we couldn’t tell you.”
And admittedly, this is a pet peeve for me – I like my narrative worlds to be internally consistent (i.e., I will happily read a story about ghosts and wolves and angels, but you have to establish the rules from the beginning). Instead, throughout the novel, we’re given fairy stories that are supposed to stand in contrast to the work that the narrative does. Cadence gives us the opening lines of fairy-tales and rejects the work that they do: “Once upon a time there were three little pigs. Once upon a time there were three brothers. No, this is it. This is the variation I want.” And the novel continues in this fashion – we’re given fairy-tales that are supposed to point to something else (in this case, selfish and boring humans doing awful things). And at the novel’s close, there’s this championing of realism: that “tragedy is not glamorous … that it doesn’t play out in life as it does on a stage or between the pages of a book.” However, the novel also ends with the twist that you’ve been warned about: “surprise! everyone’s dead and you’ve been talking to their ghosts!” So … ghosts are real? Doesn’t this move the actual real unglamorous tragedy back into a different register, the register of the three little pigs or the three brothers – the realm of the literary? Augh! Admittedly, I’m open to being wrong about my reading of this, and it might not be something that bothers someone else, but it really bothered me. « Hide Spoiler
4. Also, the note at the beginning – the injunction to JUST LIE if anyone asks you about the ending – really irritated me, in part because it’s never made clear to me what it means for the Liars to be Liars or what it means for me to lie about this book. Help me out here if you understand why they’re liars and what that means and then help me figure out whether lying is a thing that I should do as a reader.
Has anyone read this? What did you think about it? I know lots of people looooved this book – I had tons of friends (whose opinions I respect and appreciate) love it – but it just didn’t work for me. Did it work for you?
Don’t lie to me.
An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.