Book Review: We Were Liars

This upcoming Tuesday, E. Lockhart's much buzzed about book WE WERE LIARS will be available for purchase. You might have heard the title and seen tantalizing but ultimately vague reactions and descriptions of the book. I understand this is frustrating.

It was frustrating to me too, though it also did catch my attention and pique my interest. The very nicely put-together We Were Liars Tumblr can give you a better idea of what you're getting into.

But the site itself instructs us to lie about the book's contents.

I won't lie to you, but I won't tell you the whole truth either. To do so would be a disservice to your reading experience. You know how there are some books, some movies, some stories where you're better off going in knowing as little as possible? This is one of them.

I was lucky enough to get an e-ARC from Netgalley for it a month or two ago, and it's taken me that long to figure out a way to review this thing without letting too much slip.

Disclaimer: Received an e-ARC from publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

PROS: Vivid prose; strong voice; nuanced character conflicts; atmospheric; clever structure

CONS: Story occasionally meanders; sometimes felt detached from the characters; writing style/structure might bother some people

Intellectual Rating: 8 out of 10
Emotional Grade: A-

Goodreads blurb:
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.
True love.
The truth.
We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from National Book Award finalist and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart.

Read it.
And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.

From a "plot" standpoint, the book focuses on Cadence Sinclair Easton and the distinguished Sinclair family. It's about her coming of age - falling in love, becoming aware of her privilege, growing frustration with her family - but it's also about Cadence's realization of the dysfunction that exists beneath the shining image of the Sinclair clan that the world sees. Cadence spends every summer on the Sinclair's private island with her cousins and her cousin's friend. Together, they form a group called the Liars. The book is also about one particular summer they spend together.

First, I have to say that E. Lockhart's prose is just gorgeous. The writing is spare but lovely and so vivid. She quickly and effortlessly paints a picture of the Sinclairs and their island, of the carefree summers playing by the shore, of the family's magazine-perfect blue blood lifestyle. She creates an almost dreamy quality to Cadence's recountings, but she's also careful to reveal the many cracks beneath the dream, the countless microaggressions the family members inflict on each other that have built up over the years. Cadence's voice is distinct and sometimes lulling (I did feel a bit detached from her as a character, but she herself is struggling with detachment as well), but it will draw you in and hold you in a kind of spell.

Photo: We Were Liars Tumblr / Text (c) E. Lockhart  #wewereliars

If you like reading Contemporary, the story gives you more than enough to chew on. You have first love, budding teenage rebellion, family drama. There's some political disputes, inheritance issues, personality clashes. The novel is structured in an unconventional way with short chapters and jumps from the present to the past, and it's never quite clear where exactly the book is going in the first few chapters of the book. While I ultimately found this structure effective, it did make the story feel like it meandered at times. And while the problems faced by Cadence were understandable and easy to sympathize with, it did make me feel at times like "But these are still rich people, first world problems."

The good thing is even these parts served the story as a whole. The meandering plot helped set the mood of timelessness and created the "magical" quality of Cadence's summers on the island. It also kind of mimicked, I think, the often non-linear and easily distracted nature of memory and recall. And while many of the Sinclairs' problems stem (at least partly) from their extreme privilege, we're shown how these conflicts affect the characters at the personal level and how none of the drama is simple or easily solved. I don't think the story paints money as the root of the problem so much as it shows the reader how trapped any of us are within the cages of our personal and familial narratives.

What was it that Leo Tolstoy wrote about families?

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Which leads me to themes. If you've been here long enough, you'll know that I'm a girl who loves a well-executed theme or two in books. WE WERE LIARS is full of them: memory, love, grief, family, narrative.

We are all stories, and for prestigious families like the Sinclairs, this might be even truer because they tend to have such elaborate family histories, myths even. WE WERE LIARS explores what happens to people who have strong familial narratives that are entrenched in its members. Cadence and the Liars are at the age where they're realizing just how their family's image of itself can and have affected them; they're starting to see how it affects the adults too. E. Lockhart cleverly has Cadence use fairy-tales and other well-known stories as framing devices for the broken narratives and parts she has come to recognize in the Sinclair clan.

The story also explores different types of love, and in keeping with the family theme, it shows how love and loyalty can in some ways be both binding and destructive and healing and freeing.

And then there's the theme of memory, linked with the story-telling aspects of the book. How reliable is it? What are the things you remember about the people you love? What are the images you form and keep? Is any one version of a memory or story more true than another?

There's not much more I can say. WE WERE LIARS is a great book for studying voice and how to build a slow burn. It's nuanced and a little unresolved, which I liked because life is messy and unresolved. And yet, it's not un-hopeful. This is a story that lingers.

So I recommend you pick up the book and meet the Sinclairs. When you're done, I'd love to chat about the truth. But if anyone asks you about how it all unfolds, remember: just lie. (The truth is meant to be discovered.)


Connie Keller said...

Fascinating. I hadn't heard anything about this book yet. I guess I've been in my writer's cave for too long. Thanks for the heads' up.

Fida Islaih said...

Thanks for pulling me in even more in wanting to read this book.