Friday, February 21, 2020

"We Were Liars," by E. Lockhart--Fiction Review

This Friday, my dear internet strangers, we’re in for a sad one titled, “We Were Liars” by E. Lockhart.

It’s a teen/YA book about family, love gained and lost, and death…and rainbows—well, not that last part, but I thought I should inject some levity here. Like a clown, everyone loves clowns!

E. Lockhart

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

I was all prepared to not like this book, and it won me over. After all, it’s from the point of view of some rich white girl describing her trials and tribulations of her summers living on her waspy wealthy family’s private island off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. So I was dismayed when Cadence and her cousins started worming their way past my thinky bits and into my feely bits. This might sound like a reason to not love this novel, but I hold it up as evidence of the author’s skill to get me to relate to characters I usually wouldn’t like.

This novel uses the unreliable narrator literary device in such a way that while early on, you’re kind of aware of it—the title talks about liars after all—but it’s still devastating when the grand illusion is shattered. I often reread novels, usually because I want to re-live a particular story, but there is no going backward with “We Were Liars” it’s impossible to have a similar experience the second read through. I recently reread this novel, marathoning it while I was bedridden and not feeling well—a state of being eerily similar to Cadence’s normal. So during that time, knowing the twists and turns, it was exquisitely evident to me that this book was designed to be a completely different story on subsequent read-throughs. This is a writing feat I find massively impressive.   

What I don’t love about this book:

Short chapters—I know it’s a weird thing to not like, but I typically read a lot of books simultaneously, and when one book has short chapters, it throws off my timing when I switch books. The whole story is from Cadence’s point of view as though she is writing the novel, so I found myself saying out loud a few times, “walking into a new god damn room doesn’t require a new chapter, Cady!” I know this is a little off-topic, but my ideal chapter takes fifteen to twenty-five minutes to read, and the sooner the rest of the world conforms to this—the better. In my own writing, I go the other way, rarely keeping to this rule, because my prolixness is unending, but this is a do as I say, not as I do sort of thing.

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

This isn’t synopsis yet, and I know I just did my spoiler warning, but seriously, if you haven’t read this book yet, I’d go read it first before continuing. Once you know the ending, you can’t really see it any other way.

So for those of you still here—the book starts off with Cadence Sinclair Eastman, describing how her father left her and her “mummy” and then apparently shoots Cadence right in the chest with a handgun on the front lawn. Except that he didn’t. This is just a graphic metaphor Cadence uses to describe the feeling of him leaving. It’s also the first indication that Cady, as her family affectionately calls her, can be a bit light on the truth when she tells a story.

The story moves on to describing Cadence’s time living on her family’s private island during the summers, where she spent most of her time with her cousins close to her own age Johnny and Mirren, and eventually Johnny’s friend Gat, who is Indian. As the years go on, the four of them are inseparable during the summers and get a reputation for mischief amongst the family—hence the nickname the liars. Gat and Cady even fall into a young love romance, the kind which is all passion and nobody is entirely confident what the other person wants and so on.

Then during the summer, when they were fifteen, Cadence is in some sort of accident. The details are fuzzy to her because she has a form of amnesia, and is relating the events after the fact. Cadence doesn’t return to the island next year. Instead, she goes on an extended summer trip to Europe with her father, the guy who definitely didn’t shoot her at the beginning of the book. The journey doesn’t go exactly well, she misses the liars, and she still has crippling migraines related to her “accident.”  

The next year, Cady and her mother return to the island for the summer, her Grandfather’s house has been rebuilt as something new, and foreign to Cadence. Cady meets up with the rest of the liars at cuddledown—one of the houses on the island—and they resume their old life together, and Cadence finds she is still desperately in love with Gat. The rest of the family are living in the three other houses on the island, so Cady and the liars have plenty of time alone together at cuddledown.

The liars try to slowly help Cadence remember summer fifteen, throughout the summer, since she’s lost most of her memories of that whole summer and not just her accident. She gets bits and pieces, here and there as they hang out, in the house, on the beach, etc. Soon she realizes that the whole of summer fifteen wasn’t very good. Her mother and aunts got drunk and fought continuously that summer over their father, and their inheritance, and Cadence’s dead grandmother’s possessions.

It becomes clear to Cady that the family had been on the verge of breaking up during summer fifteen. The liars were being pitted against each other by their mothers, to try to win better terms in their Grandfather’s will. Gat was going to be sent away because Cadence’s Grandfather didn’t approve of her relationship with him for purely racist reasons, and everything was a mess.

Then Cadence realizes that her “accident” happened because of an ill-conceived attempt to save the family and get the aunts to stop fighting over their inheritance. The liars had decided to burn down Cady’s Grandfather’s house when everyone else was off the island. Then the first tragic revelation happens, Cadence realizes that when they did that, they accidentally killed her Grandfather’s dogs. Then the other shoe drops and Cadence realizes that the other liars also died in that fire, and she was the only survivor.

The book ends with Cadence talking to her liars, who have been dead for nearly all of the book, one last time. Then they swim off into the sunset, having done what they were there for, helping Cady remember and move past her survivor’s guilt.        


This book is many things, it’s romantic, and a family drama, but mainly it’s about power and how it can be illusory. Cadence’s Grandfather holds all the power in the family, and all of his daughters become pretty awful people trying to win his favor. This is what leads the liars to burn down his house, in a foolish attempt to seize power and save the family. In the end, all their righteous bravado was really idiocy masquerading as bravery—helped along by underage drinking—and all it led to was a tragedy.

After the revelation that Cadence’s cousins and Gat are dead, and have been for most of the book, everything before that moment is suddenly and violently reframed. It truly is worth going back and rereading the whole novel at that point because, like I said in the non-spoiler section of this review, it is an entirely different novel the second time. A whole bunch of weird conversations and unlikely events suddenly make sense, and understanding Cadence’s delusions enhance the tragedy of the entire experience.

A fascinating detail is the degradation of the cuddledown house as the story progresses because that house serves as the de facto base of the liars. As the plot marches along and toward the big revelation, cuddledown is described as becoming messier and messier. The first time reading it, I thought, wow, these kids are slobs, but after knowing that the liars are all dead save Cady, the mess suddenly makes a whole new terrible sense. It isn’t the messy clubhouse of four teenagers. It’s the trashed domain of one severely depressed young woman. When people are clinically depressed, it’s incredibly common for them to not clean up after themselves. This is one of those excellent set of details that reframes after you gain more information by progressing through the plot.

There is an argument to be made that cuddledown is haunted by the ghosts of the liars, especially because Cadence’s younger cousin Taft even claims to her that it’s haunted, and it’s more than implied he sees his dead sister there too. However, I think it’s more likely that he, like Cadence, is having a hard time reconciling her death and shares her delusions on some level.    

Parting thoughts:

I’m not super proud to admit this, but I never knew where Martha’s Vineyard was until I read this book, and I definitely didn’t realize it was an island. Certainly, I’d heard of the place many times in passing, but for some reason, I always associated it with Martha Stewart or sometimes as a place in California—both are equally stupid for different reasons.

Finally, this book was initially recommended to me by a friend after I had just finished reading, “The Road,” and one of the books in the Red Rising series, and I had expressed a desire for lighter emotional fare. She suggested this, proving she has just as sick a sense of humor as me. She claims she didn’t realize the context of her recommendation at the time, but I have my doubts. Regardless, I think it’s an excellent book, and you should read it too—but maybe not if you’re in the mood for a feel-good story.

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