6 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were LiarsTitle: We Were Liars

Author: E. Lockhart

Genre: Contemporary Young Adult, Magical Realism

Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: May 13 2014
Hardcover: 240 Pages

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.

Stand alone or series: Standalone novel

How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher

Format (e- or p-): Print ARC

Why did I read this book: First of all, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by this author is a favourite book of mine. Then there was the hype surrounding this book! The Twist! Was Amazing! and also the comparisons to Liar (another fave) by Justine Larbalestier. How could I NOT read it?

Review:

I am ambivalent about We Were Liars.

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First: The Twist.

The first thing you see when you open the ARC is a letter of introduction from the publisher telling us what the book is about and asking the reader not to spoil it for the people who haven’t read it yet. Plus:

“And if anyone asks how it ends, just LIE.”

It’s interesting how this letter serves to direct the conversation to this one side of the story that to me, is the least interesting part of the book. I’ve seen so many reviews that concentrate on that – on whether the ending and The Twist “worked” or not, or how it was mind-blowing, etc.

The Twist is surprising. And mind-blowing. And I never saw it coming (even though the clues were all there in the preceding chapters when you go back to re-read). But The Twist is a mere droplet of water in an ocean of things to talk about.

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My own immediate reading tells me that this is a book about privilege. Or more to the point: the examination of privilege.

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The Sinclairs: an Old Traditional Rich Family that live on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts – at least in the summertime. All Sinclairs are beautiful, athletic and rich.

They want you to think that they are not criminals, drug addicts or failures. That they have no problems and that everybody loves each other. Those are lies: for the Sinclairs have successfully (and carefully) built personas – both public and private. They don’t talk about things that are sad. The patriarch rules the family. The three daughters are at his feet, hoping to one day inherit the fortune. Everybody – including themselves – wants to believe the Sinclairs to be as perfect as they seem to be.

The Liars: are the oldest grandchildren. The narrator Cady, her cousins Mirren and Johnny. Plus Gat, an outsider, the nephew of one of the aunt’s boyfriend and the guy Cady falls in love with. We never really learn why they are called liars, by the way.

The story is narrated by seventeen year-old Cady who is an utterly unreliable narrator. She has amnesia after a terrible accident when she was fifteen – an accident that has fundamentally changed her. Cady’s attempt to remember the events that led to her accident drives most of the narrative when she returns to the island after a long absence. But there are also meandering moments in which she thinks about her family, the long-lost summertimes of her idyllic childhood. There are added “Once Upon a Time” interjections examining the lives of the Sinclairs that work well to introduce an element of timelessness and historical background to the dynamics surrounding the family and to make a firm statement about how Cady is reinventing herself after losing so much of her own memories.

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This book is soaked in privilege. It’s difficult for me to really care about a story where most of these incredibly beautiful, rich, healthy, white characters sit around complaining how hard their lives are when they are in fact, sitting around in their beautiful private island, drinking incredibly expensive wine, eating posh food, prepared and served by their invisible help.

+++

But this is The Point. Here is a book that examines this impossible lifestyle, that shows very clearly how isolated, insulated, apart from the world they are, without even knowing it.

I was going to add “unreal” to the list above. But there is nothing unreal about the Sinclairs. This is a very real example of privilege. It is above all, their reality. This is also The Point. Unexamined privilege is hurtful in very, very real ways.

The narrative itself is also dripping with privilege. It’s all from Cady’s point of view after all and she is immersed in this world. She is one of the Sinclairs. Her viewpoint and therefore ours are thus, restricted by who she is. Or who she remembers being.

There is a movement toward awareness here especially when she is hearing Gat’s political thoughts. He is the one that is more aware than anybody else. He is not a Sinclair. He is not white. He is the only one that sees through the grandfather and notices his “benevolent” racism (Gat is allowed to send the summer in the island, he is even welcomed to the family’s dinners but the grandfather never ever addresses him by his name). He is the one who asks Cady if she knows the names of the people who work for them. He is the one who says:

“Not everyone has private islands. Some people work on them. Some work in factories. Some don’t have work. Some don’t have food.”

Which sounds puerile to the extreme and naïve and like, Humanity 101. But this comes across to Cady as a Revelation. I was then reminded of the characters’ youth. And how they are all tragically swimming in privilege without even knowing it.

+++

The narrative is carefully constructed toward its momentous ending. I have no qualms about the effectiveness of the plot and the storytelling. It is also beautiful narrated by Cady. Her idyllic summers with her cousins are almost palpable in the way that they are described: the lazing about, the talking about their feelings and hopes for the future as well as Cady’s need for communion and connection.

But there is also a lot of telling, little showing. It’s hard to care about those characters at all, they are almost cardboard characters. We hardly know anything about them beyond Cady’s descriptions that are more proclamations than actual portrayal. We hardly see the characters being any of those things: Johnny is “bounce, effort and snark”; Mirren is “sugar, curiosity and rain”; Gat is “ambition and strong coffee.”

That said, I go back to the fact that we are so restricted by Cady’s viewpoint. She did not really know who they really were either. I admire the author’s commitment to taking her narrator all the way even if it kind of backfires.

But the fact remains that without that level of communion between me, the reader, and those characters, the grand finale felt underwhelming.

+++

I think part of what makes me so ambivalent about the book is that I was left with the impression that “what happens in the end” also matters very little. Has changed very little. It is a tragedy that is confined. The Sinclairs will remain. Will continue as they have always done. Cady will go on with her guilt and grief which are terrible things indeed but without suffering any real-world consequences for the very real thing she did. So in a way the book goes nowhere, moves no further than its opening. It’s restricted, it’s history repeating itself, it’s the cycle of privilege continuing. You don’t stop being privileged just because you know you are privileged.

Perhaps this is exactly what it is supposed to be. And THAT’S the true twist, the biggest tragedy and the most horrifying thing about We Were Liars.

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And yet.

I get that Cady is not supposed to be a likeable, sympathetic character. But I feel the narrative in its final chapter, wants us to understand her pain and to overlook the fact that her privilege will let her pretty much get away. That all is forgiven and forgotten. To feel for the poor little rich, privileged kids.

But this routine is one I am so sick and tired of. I don’t really care.

+++

Part of me believes the book is too ambitious and ultimately fails in what it set out to do.

Part of me believes the book is too ambitious and succeeds beautifully in what it set out to do.

I said I was ambivalent about it.

Notable Quotes/Parts:

WELCOME TO THE beautiful Sinclair family.

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.

It doesn’t matter if one of us is desperately, desperately in love.

So much
in love
that equally desperate measures
must be taken.

We are Sinclairs.
No one is needy.
No one is wrong.

We live, at least in the summertime, on a private island o? the coast of Massachusetts.

Perhaps that is all you need to know.

Rating: 6 – Good, recommended with reservations

Reading Next: A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn

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18 Comments

  • Brandy
    May 13, 2014 at 9:04 am

    THANK YOU!

    I had a difficult time writing a review for this one because I couldn’t quite figure out how to express my very real reservations without giving away spoilers. You did what I couldn’t figure out how to do.

    “But the fact remains that without that level of communion between me, the reader, and those characters, the grand finale felt underwhelming.”
    Yes this. And I actually did figure out the ending very early on, which distanced me from the other three liars (it really annoyed me that there seemed to be no reason they were called that) because I knew better than to try and care.

    “But I feel the narrative in its final chapter, wants us to understand her pain and to overlook the fact that her privilege will let her pretty much get away. That all is forgiven and forgotten.”
    THIS RIGHT HERE. I was so mad about this part. For most of the book I was hoping for a different outcome. My anger over this is another thing I can’t really detail because I would have to explain how spoilery things made me feel. GRRRR. Maybe you’re right and this is the true twist tragedy. But no, it doesn’t work.

    The more I reflect on the book since reading it the more annoyed I get honestly, because I feel in shrouding it in so much mystery it’s hard to write any real criticism of the text. If you can’t talk about the end, it makes bringing up the very real issues the book has nearly impossible.

    (Sorry for the long comment. I haven’t found anyone else who’s thoughts were anywhere close to mine, never mind as close as this. I got excited.)

  • Ana
    May 13, 2014 at 9:09 am

    @Brandy: I admit I was so unsure about writing this review and how to express how I felt about the book, it is a HUGE relief to see your comment!

  • hapax
    May 13, 2014 at 9:21 am

    I’ve pretty much given up on reading books that I know are going to make me feel “I want something horrible to happen to these characters.”

    Your review confirms my hunch that this is one of those. Thanks for sparing me from Book!RAGE.

  • Cynthia @ Jellyfish Reads
    May 13, 2014 at 10:27 am

    Ah, this is such a fascinating review! I haven’t read the book and I think this review just talks about the book, while still keeping it non-spoilery, in a much more lucid and in depth way than most other reviews have managed.

    I kind of want to read this book, but at the same time I’m not sure I do. It just sounds like the kind of book that would really frustrate me. On the other hand, The Secret History by Donna Tartt is one of my all-time favourites and this book is supposed to be a bit like that, so maybe I will enjoy it? But what I liked about that book was that even though the characters were all clearly a bunch of douche-y privileged rich kids (although the narrator is just a little different), they… weren’t cardboard cutouts at all, and the book was so beautifully written and very show, not tell. Which can make all the difference, sometimes. So I don’t know. Maybe I’ll read We Were Liars eventually, but it’s not high on my priority list, I guess.

  • Asakiyume
    May 13, 2014 at 10:58 am

    Hmmm, sounds rather gimmicky, and it sounds as if, regardless of how clever the narrative and the big reveal are, the situation and the characters sink the story. It’s not enough for people to express self-loathing over their piles of money and privilege: DO SOMETHING. ANYTHING. This feels like reading a story about someone who has a rose-scented hot-air balloon that composes music, and says, “Y’all probably hate me–and I hate myself–because I’ve got this rose-scented hot-air balloon that composes music. Man my life just sucks, though–let me tell you about my secret pain.”

    EVERYONE has secret pain! But you have a rose-scented hot-air balloon that composes music! What are you going to do with it? Nothing??

    But really I’d rather read about someone who had to drop out of school but who always dreamed of building a hot air balloon, and then they get a job as a gardner’s assistant, and they sweep up all the fallen rose petals and instead of throwing them away they take them home and stitch them up into a bag for a hot air balloon, and meanwhile . . . etc.

  • Ray
    May 13, 2014 at 11:25 am

    Well said, Ana! You put words to my vague feelings–it was certainly ambitious, but I have no idea if it succeeded. Her writing is often brilliant, and I admire it so much, but it was hard to connect with the characters. I particularly struggled with the ambition-and-black-coffee bits, which felt reductive and distancing.

  • Liz B
    May 13, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    Did you see the TIME bit by the kid from Princeton, who, in a nutshell, defended being privileged? Privileged is a very loaded term. People don’t like being called it; they don’t like admitting they have it.

    I agree that LIARS is about privilege, but I think that the heightened privileged of the Sinclairs is done because it’s easier to see “their” privilege than look in the window and see our own, whatever it may be. I think it is a deliberate choice (and as any choice, may or may not work on readers) to have it sink in and later realize that many of what makes the Sinclairs privileged aren’t that unique, even if it is exaggerated.

    Ask any kid who gets suspended for cheating, when the kid whose parents are second generation in a town do not. Or the pranks in a private school get laughed at, the pranks in a public school get police records. I think LIARS asks us not just to examine Cady’s privilege, but also our own.

    It’s not an easy book, in part because while I loved the character of Cady, I disliked her very much. What she did was stupid, negligent, careless, and arrogant. She gets away with it because of money. But those traits aren’t just about money and connections. I’m giving a lot of thought to this, still working it out, but I think it’s much more than a poor little rich kid.

    Tho for the record: it’s why I cannot stand Holden Caulfield. So I get where you’re coming from!

  • Ana
    May 13, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    @LizB – God, Holden Caulfield is my literary nemesis. I am looking forward to hearing your further thoughts on the book.

  • Alison W
    May 13, 2014 at 11:37 pm

    Your review reminded me of a documentary I watched a few months ago – Born Rich. I was gobsmacked by the naivete and the “problems” most of these kids had. They completely didn’t live in the real world (aside from Ivanka Trump who came across as smart and determined).

    And, I have to say, I felt pity for them in the end. That they were mostly directionless (or directed by an unyielding family expectation); that they were missing out on the messy experiences in life, which are often the most fun. At the same time, due to their ignorance, they were generally unlikeable.

    Sounds like E. Lockhart got it spot on in terms of Cady’s character, but as you have pointed out Ana – do we feel sorry enough to care or forgive that level of ignorance? I’m intrigued enough to give it a try but will go in with measured expectations.

  • Jacqui
    May 14, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    I completely agree. I saw all the amazing reviews and read the book expecting so much more. I feel that it totally fell flat. Thanks for summing it up well! I didn’t hate it – and it certainly might work for some, but I was expecting a lot more from this author.

  • Justine Larbalestier
    May 15, 2014 at 4:30 am

    Liz B pretty much sums up my thoughts about We Were Liars. And like her I loathe loathe loathe Holden Caulfield and Catcher in the Rye. And yet Liars totally worked for me.

    This is what privilege looks like. This is how it operates and this is how it distorts people’s souls and turns them into . . . well, not psychopaths exactly, but people with not a whole lot of empathy for anyone but themselves. People who have basically no idea how any but their own narrow, constrained, nasty, little worlds work.

  • kimberlybuggie
    May 16, 2014 at 7:07 pm

    Awesome review. I’m still interested in reading it anyway but I’m very intrigued. I’m sorry it wasn’t as amazing as I am sure you hoped it would be!

  • AnimeJune
    May 24, 2014 at 11:25 pm

    Oh wow, I unabashedly loved this book from beginning to end.

    Part of it was the examination of privilege, and how blind people can be to it. There’s a scene where all three original daughters of the granddad – the mum and the aunts – fight about how little they have and how hard their lives are, and I’m like, YOU LIVE ON TRUST FUNDS. You get to summer on a private island!

    But I was also interested in how the novel shows different LEVELS of privilege, especially in how Cady is affected by migraines that are undiagnosed and largely impervious to pain medication. Her illness affects her in a very real way and her wealth and privilege and upbringing are meaningless in the face of constant, chronic, debilitating pain that can leave her vomiting and bedridden for days.

    Although you could (and the novel does) argue that even in this instance, Cady has access to the best doctors and the best meds and trips to Europe, etc. It also examines how Cady can sometimes let her illness make her feel like a Special Unsuperficial Snowflake and how wrong that assumption is.

    And … as silly and perhaps superficial as it sounds … I really loved the descriptions of the houses and the island and the fun everyone had. The Sinclairs have a very similar family structure to mine (but not the dynamic! I swear! …I think) where we all celebrate holidays and such at my maternal grandparents’ place with all my mum’s siblings and the cousins divided by age (like the Liars and the Littles). That all felt very spot on and personal to me.

    I also liked that that were no villains, not really, other than everyone’s flaws. I actually liked it far more than Frankie Landau-Banks, a novel that I appreciated but left me cold.

    I dunno. Some strange alchemy about the writing and the setting and the pacing was really addictive to me.

  • jennygadget
    September 6, 2014 at 2:03 am

    Thank you Thank you Thank you for this, I was beginning to think it was just me.

    Granted, I did figure out the twist really early on, and I know that didn’t help, but there was a lot that bothered me about this book.

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  • Carlisa
    February 15, 2015 at 2:19 pm

    I totally agree with your ambivalence on this novel! I just reviewed this one on my blog so I’m glad to see you have some of the same sort of feelings.

    The twist was the big redeeming factor of this book but I think I had a harder time liking the stylistic voice of Cadence. It didn’t seem realistic to me and, like you said, I couldn’t connect with her character very well.

    Thanks for your opinion!

  • Amanda B.
    April 29, 2015 at 12:48 pm

    I too was ambivalent… that is the best way to describe it. I didn’t detest the book, but I don’t think I would recommend it to others. I read it for book club, so I’m anxious to hear next week what everyone else thought about it!

    anchoredtosunshine.com

  • tan lee
    July 5, 2015 at 7:17 pm

    The Liars. It occurs to me that Cady, Gat, Johnny and Mirren were the only ones who told the TRUTH to their grandfather. Maybe the mothers slandered them as liars to the grandfather as part of their campaign to get his inheritance???

    That’s why the book title is so important. It puts the emphasis on how sick the relationships in this family were before the fire.

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