By: Tildy Banker-Johnson
Working at a bookstore has its perks, such as getting advance copies of books not yet published. When I first opened my advance readers’ copy of E. Lockhart’s newest novel We Were Liars, there was a note from the publisher not asking, but rather demanding “And if anyone asks you how it ends, LIE.” This mandate does more than create a challenge in writing a review. Immediately, before the book even started, I was dragged into the story. They were asking me to violate one of the most basic lessons we learn as children, either in a religious setting (“Thou shalt not lie!”) or by the simple standards of “right” and “wrong” taught to us by parents or whomever raised us. So although I technically don’t have to lie about the ending or any part of the story (because really, how is anyone at Delacorte Press or Random House going to know?), maybe I will, and you will have to distinguish the truth of this review for yourself.
Let me start with the ending. My experience of reading We Were Liars culminated in gross ugly sobbing, in a very public and fairly crowded place. In fact, it was a local coffee shop situated not too far from where the story is located. Now, I’m not saying that I am a fairly emotionless person, or that I don’t occasionally cry at the abused animal commercials with the sad Sarah McLachlan music playing over them, but I am not one to cry in public. No, I like to reserve that sort of emotional display for private spaces such as my bedroom, or perhaps, in the spirit of Arrested Development, in the shower. But my reaction to the conclusion and the few chapters leading to it was the very visceral result of an incredible, detail-woven story with an ending I didn’t see coming (and maybe should have). Looking back now at the plot of the story, at the details that didn’t make sense at the time and at the things that appeared just a little off, it seems like it should have been so very clear to me what was really going on and what really had been at stake. And yet, although the tightly intertwined plotlines and Lockhart’s beautiful use of metaphor made me aware something was amiss, I only figured out the reason moments before it’s revealed. I don’t think you will see the ending coming from a mile away either, in spite of the fact that from the moment the book actually begins you will know that something is not right, specifically because the narrator tells you so.
Cadence, or Cady, is our seventeen year-old, first-person narrator, and the way she speaks to us is as a friend, one she is taking on this journey as she tries to remember what has been locked away in her memory, where even she cannot reach it, barred by terrible headaches and fatigue. She tells us from the start that she is not a reliable narrator. Maybe she doesn’t say this in so many words but when she articulates her accident (hitting her head on a rock while swimming), we know that she cannot be completely trusted. In fact, she tells us up front that she’s a liar.
“Liar” is not simply a term for someone who doesn’t tell the truth. Cady is a Liar, one of four, comprised of two of her many cousins, Johnny and Mirren and their friend, Gat. Together they make up small but mischievous groups, who have summertime adventures on a small private island off the coast of Cape Cod. The island they inhabit is fictional, but it clearly is meant to be one of the Elizabethan Islands that is neighbor to Martha’s Vineyard, which is referred to in the book as the “big island.”
Maybe I should have started out saying that this is a young adult novel. But if you’ve gotten this far, you should know that this book, while perhaps aimed at young adults (yes, there is some romance, and that bildungsroman aspect that seems to be typical of nearly every book written for or about someone under the age of eighteen), touches on topics not exclusive to teenagers, such as money, memory and family. It’s even fair to argue that We Were Liars is as wonderful as it is because it fits squarely into the YA genre. Lockhart’s characters experience first love remind the reader of their own experiences with love. The young adult theme of dysfunction that makes it accessible and relatable to teenagers in other books like John Green’s Looking for Alaska or Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. Additionally, the story is so well written that it will appeal to a broader age range.
One of the more fantastic writing aspects of We Were Liars is Lockhart’s incorporation of literary tradition woven into the fabric of the book. She references fairy tales, authors like Diana Wynne Jones and Robin McKinley, and even Wuthering Heights, both directly and indirectly. Their nature informs Cady’s mental story and enhances the magic and illusion the reader feels as they accompany her back through her piecemeal memory.
As we learn the truth of who Cady is and what happened to her and the Liars over the course of several summers, we see how the world outside the island molds the teenagers as they grow and develop. Cady becomes aware of her actions and their consequences, not only for herself but also for her family. It is not only through Cady’s self-awareness, but also through Mirren’s kindness, Johnny’s jocularity and Gat’s political activism that the reader sees how the changing family dynamics and tensions affect the close-knit group.
The family politics are not only important to the plot of the story, but they are also intensely realistic. I have a deeply personal history with familial tension, and I was shocked at how well Lockhart was able to convey the way in which the extended families become entrenched in the drama, and its consequences for the younger, less involved family members. She nails not only rivalries between siblings who have grown up, but also the ways a parent might try to manipulate their children, even if they themselves have been controlled, or how the death of an important member can rock the foundation of the family.
For me, this book really struck a chord, and it’s one that I want to read again. I suspect that Lockhart’s writing will make me feel just as deeply the second time around. And although the publishers might want me to, I won’t lie about this: We Were Liars is an incredibly written book that left me heartbroken and wrestling with a thousand other emotions but ultimately, content.