E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars received a lot of favourable publicity, especially on Twitter, over the summer. I was intrigued enough to want to read it, even though young adult novels aren’t normally my kind of thing and I don’t usually fall for hype.
I ended up gulping this book down in a couple of days in late July and as soon as I finished it, I turned back to the start to read it all over again. That’s because this book has a completely unexpected shock ending, one that left me feeling stunned for days afterwards, and I wanted to know how I hadn’t seen it coming. What clues had I missed first time round? How had the author managed to pull the wool over my eyes so well?
A life of privilege
The book is narrated by 17-year-old Cadence Sinclair recalling “summer 15 ” before “the accident”. She lives a rather privileged life as part of the Sinclair clan, which can trace its lineage back to the Mayflower. Each year members of the clan holiday on their own private island near Martha’s Vineyard.
In a plot very much inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear, three Sinclair sisters — Penny, Carrie and Bess — vy for the family inheritance. Cadence is the daughter of one of these sisters. She’s an only child and quite ill from an unspecified brain injury caused when she supposedly hit her head on a rock while swimming alone. No one knows why she was swimming alone and Cadence has no memory of it.
The “liars” of the title are Cadence and her cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and Gat, a friend of the family, who has been coming to the island since he was eight years old. This teenage gang of four is very close-knit and spend all their time together doing what teenagers do on holiday: gossip, swim, party and, in Cadence’s case, fall head over heels in love.
We Were Liars perfectly captures what it is like to be a teenager, of trying to fit in but not wanting to stand out, of the peer pressure you feel and the ways in which friendships, whether sexual or not, take on an all-consuming quality.
The book is written in a very immediate and engaging style, with an emphasis on rhythm so that much of the prose reads like poetry:
I used to be blond, but now my hair is black.
I used to be strong, but now I am weak.
I used to be pretty, but now I look sick.
It is true I suffer migraines since my accident.
It is true I do not suffer fools.
I like a twist of meaning. You see? Suffer migraines. Do not suffer fools. The word means almost the same as it did in the previous sentence, but not quite.
I especially loved Cadence’s voice, which has a cutting edge to it — she’s a moody, bitter, smart and sassy teenager, who doesn’t quite realise how good she’s got it, regardless of the migraines and health issues she suffers. Her mother is overly critical, often telling her to “act normal”, but Cadence is also prone to drama and exaggeration. As an example, when her father announces he’s leaving the family, Cadence says he pulled out a gun and shot her, but it’s only later that you realise she’s talking figuratively, not literally. This is a clever device because everything else that follows casts a degree of doubt in the reader’s mind as to what is real and what is not.
Indeed, there’s a certain kind of fairytale element to the whole story, which is dotted with lots of light, joyful moments underpinned by a dark undercurrent that doesn’t fully merge into focus until you reach that surprise ending. I loved the portrait it painted of young privileged lives, of being relaxed and carefree, but I also liked the way it posited the idea that you should never take anything for granted and that being rich does not necessarily buy happiness.
We Were Liars showcases Lockhart’s storytelling prowess: it’s quirky and compelling, haunting and kind of magical, but it’s also sad and heart-breaking. And that amazing ending makes it a rather unforgettable read, too.