I have to admit, right off the bat, that We Were Liars practically did my heart in. And I don't mean to be dramatic when I say that. The text on the back instructs the reader: "Read it. And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE." I promise I won't lie in this review, and so I am being truthful when I tell you how this story affected me, and how I think it will affect you. It shattered my heart, and the sharp bits traveled through my body and tore me up some more. I will not, under any circumstances, give you any indication of the ending. I will be silent. It is that surprising, and that good.
"Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family," says Cadence Sinclair Eastman on the first page. Cady, the oldest grandchild in the Sinclair family, continues on:
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 square, and our tennis serves aggressive. It doesn't matter if divorce shreds the muscles of our hearts so that they will hardly beat without a struggle. It doesn't matter if trust-fund money is running out; if credit card bills go unpaid on the kitchen counter. It doesn't matter if there's a cluster of pill bottles on the bedside table.
Cady is the narrator of this haunting tale; this story of what happened during Summer Fifteen (the year Cady turned fifteen) on the private island her grandfather owns off the coast of Massachusetts. For as long as she can remember, Cady has spent all her summers there with her family: her mother, her grandparents, her mother's two sisters - and most especially cousins Johnny and Mirren who are the exact same age as Cady. Oh, and Gat Patil, the not-white, not-wealthy, incredibly smart, passionate and political nephew of Cady's aunt's boyfriend.
Gat began coming to the island from Summer Eight. And Summer Eight was when they - Cady, the two cousins, and Gat - were named The Liars. Not quite a club, The Liars were always together, stirring up some sort of trouble. Says Cady: "I wrote our names in the sand. Cadence, Mirren, Johnny and Gat. Gat, Johnny, Mirren and Cadence. That was the beginning of us."
It was Summer Fifteen when tragedy struck. The Liars were involved. And two years later Summer Seventeen when this story unfolds, Cady can't remember much of it. She knows there was a mysterious accident. She knows she suffered a trauma to the head. She has intermittent migraines as a result, as well as selective amnesia. This is the first time she has been back to the island, and she is determined to uncover the truth.
With spare, brutal prose, Lockhart takes the reader into Cady's broken mind and ragged heart. Cady's mother and two aunts, daughters of a divisive, manipulative patriarch, have lead lives which have felt like they're walking on eggshells. Each daughter has strived for perfection and each has fallen short in her own way. The result is a competitive, fevered push to win the father's affection - and inheritance. The daughters, in turn, have tried to push their own children into this race. Do Johnny, Mirren, Cady (and Gat) follow in their mothers' footsteps? Do they comply? Do they push back? I have sworn to remain silent, remember?
What I can tell you is that Lockhart is a careful, smart story builder. First of all, Cady is clearly an unreliable narrator. I got the feeling she was telling the truth, and wanted to believe her (and did, to be honest), but I had to remind myself that she had memory gaps. This kept me on my toes and turning the pages. Also, despite the frustration at best (and disgust at worst) that I felt for the Sinclair family, Lockhart manages to give all of them including the pretty darn awful patriarch multi-dimensional qualities which humanizes them. This, in turn, actually made me care; made my heart ache and hope for each of them. Lockhart does it with small, deft strokes. We Were Liars is a meticulously constructed story, but Lockhart's precise plotting and solid foundation don't show at all. The story is simply a sharp, strong blow to the gut.
It is also a cautionary tale to families who live deeply entrenched within their own customs and beliefs; a warning that if they get in too deep they might never be able to climb out. The Sinclairs are a Grimms' fairy tale kind of family, and it is that kind of dark of which I speak. Cady repeatedly re-envisions the family story as one about a king and his three daughters. In this sense, Lockhart weaves fairy tale elements throughout the text
I can't tell you how We Were Liars turns out. But I can urge you to read it. It will wreck your heart and confound your mind. Like me, you'll probably want to go back and read it right away, all over again, to see if you can follow the clues to the earth-shattering conclusion. This story is suited for young adult readers but adults will be amazed by it too.
This review was originally published in May 2014, and has been updated for the May 2014 edition. Click here to go to this issue.
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