Hey summer readers, grab some shades and a sunny chair, because this book is all about summer, and you should make it part of yours. If you like YA books with private islands and unreliable narrators, this one’s for you.
I remember being terrified that I would grow up but never grow out of YA books. I don’t know why, exactly, but my teenage self thought that perusing the YA shelves as an adult was an awful prospect. It turned out not to matter much, because the adult fiction section is also pretty great and I transitioned out of YA pretty naturally. I still have a lot of respect for the genre, though, so when a YA book really stands out, I do still venture back to those shelves to keep from missing something great. That’s what We Were Liars was for me–I heard so many good things about it that I had to check it out for myself, and I am so glad that I did.
About the book: Cady is one of four kids the same age who spend their summers with the Sinclair family on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts. Cady’s grandparents are rich–wealthy enough to support their three struggling daughters through their divorces and cover the expenses of bringing all three generations of the family to the four personalized houses on the island for the entire summer. Time is running out, though, to settle the elder Sinclairs’ estate, and the disputes about money are driving them all apart. The parents use their children as leverage to get the money they want while their trust funds start to run dry–Cady is the oldest grandchild, but she’s a girl. Johnny’s only three weeks younger, and he’ll carry on the Sinclair name, but he’s not very smart. Mirren is book smart, but she’s afraid to take risks. And then there’s Gat, Johnny’s almost stepbrother, who is both smart and savvy, ambitious and hard-working, but he wasn’t born a Sinclair at all, and will never quite fit in. There are the littles, of course, the young siblings, but it’ll be one of the eldest to inherit. From the outside, the family’s perfect, but the four Liars can see the cracks, and they spend summer fifteen trying to wedge the pieces apart to see if the family and their precious summers can last. Cady is in love with Gat, but even more in love with the idea of removing the powerful grip that the family money holds in all of their lives. Something happens at the end of summer fifteen to change everything, but Cady can’t remember what. She was sent away for summer sixteen, and now, in summer seventeen, is trying to piece it all back together, to heal, and be one of the Liars again before it all changes forever.
“My third week on-island is ticking by and a migraine takes me out for two days. Or maybe three. I can’t even tell. The pills in my bottle are getting low, though I filled my prescription before we left home. I wonder if Mummy is taking them. Maybe she has always been taking them. Or maybe the twins have been coming in my room again, lifting things they don’t need. Maybe they’re users. Or maybe I am taking more than I know. Popping extra in a haze of pain. Forgetting my last dose.”
One of the most intriguing aspects of this story for me is the use of an unreliable narrator. The excerpt above is just one reason not to trust her–she’s on heavy medication and she’s not entirely sure how much she’s taking or how it’s affecting her. She also opens the story by admitting that her family puts on a false show of perfection for the public, and even amongst her family members she and her friends are referred to as the Liars, a name they don’t refute. The central focus of this book is Cady’s attempt to uncover a truth so terrible she’s hiding it from herself, and the only way to piece it together is to sort through years of lies. It’s a play on reality that keeps the reader constantly wondering who to trust and what to believe. There are additional layers of fiction woven in by Cady’s inclusion of fairy tales that both fantasize her family and shed new light on their personalities. It’s easy to imagine the entire story as one emassed fairy tale that Cady creates for the fun of it–except some truths can’t be denied, even in the ficitons she spins.
Another thing I loved about this book was the style of the prose. The whole book is quick and easy to read, sharply lyrical, verging toward poetry at points. Lockhart calls attention to certain events and emotions with vivid imagery as Cady exaggerates the world and her reactions to it:
“My father put a last suitcase into the backseat of the Mercedes (he was leaving Mummy with only the Saab), and started the engine. / Then he pulled out a handgun and shot me in the chest. I was standing on the lawn and I fell. The bullet hole opened wide and my heart rolled out of my rib cage and down into a flower bed. Blood gushed rhythmically from my open wound, / then from my eyes, / my ears, / my mouth. / It tasted like salt and failure. The bright red shame of being unloved soaked the grass in front of our house, the bricks of the path, the steps to the porch. My heart spasmed among the peonies like a trout. / Mummy snapped. She said to get hold of myself.”
This is a great example of Cady fusing her feelings into her version of reality, almost so seamlessly the reader is left to wonder whether she even understands that she’s lying at all. Certainly she makes no effort in her narration to distinguish between fact and exaggeration. She often describes physical death when something emotionally difficult happens to her in this book. The line breaks (indicated with a “/”) also add emphasis to the imagery and control the pacing of the narration in order to indicate emotion. Here’s another example of the poetic nature of the prose in We Were Liars:
“And maybe, / just maybe, / he’d come back one day, / and burn that / [stupid] / palace / to the ground.”
A warning: The book is essentially about a family of rich snobs that all think they know best. They don’t know the names of their staff, they’re destructive and wasteful, and money is always a top concern. Even the ones who are aware of it act entitled. Cady is a spoiled girl who seems to understand that her mother and aunts will be in trouble when their trust funds run out, but she isn’t at all concerned about what that could mean for her personally or how it might affect her life if she and her mother don’t inherit the Sinclair estate. She’s a teenager who understands that fighting over the money is driving her family apart, but she’s not accustomed to worrying about consequences. Then again, these factors open the world of possibilities that make this story possible. The lies and lyricism of the prose were enough to balance it out for me, but if you can’t cope with the rich snobbiness, the arguments over embroidered tablecloths and ivory figurines, this may not be the book for you. Cady isn’t exactly a detestable character, but her familiarity with a lifetime of wealth is something to be aware of with this book.
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book was a surprise favorite; I had heard that it was a great summer read about rich kids on the beach of their private island, but it was the tragedy of the story that I loved. I wanted to write more about the beautiful, tragic irony of this book in more detail, but I didn’t want to spoil the ending. I must note, though, that the incredible dark twist was my favorite part, and brought all of the characters’ actions and personalities together for me. Even though they were rich and entitled, their problems weren’t completely negligible; the Liars were worried about their family and the threat the fighting posed to time that they spent together as friends in the summer. Even though it’s told through a haze of money, We Were Liars is a story about love, loss, and responsibility; it’s about growing up, and learning that there are things you can’t change about who you are.
- John Green’s Looking for Alaska is another YA book about self-discovery, love and loss. It’s an emotional book about adventure and growing up, another great choice to take poolside and enjoy with some sun.
- For something a little heavier but still perfect for summer, experience the other end of the money spectrum with Virginia Wolff’s Make Lemonade. Two teenaged girls struggling to make lift their families out of poverty come up against the harsh realities of an unfair world and fight for a better fate.
What’s next: Told from the perspective of one small boy who’s been locked in a soundproofed room with his mother for five years, Emma Donoghue’s Room is a masterpiece about family, freedom, and time. With everything at stake, five year-old Jack must be willing to brave the outside world to save himself and his mother from the captivity to which he’s become accustomed. Stay tuned to find out more!
As you set sail on summer reading adventures, I say,
The Literary Elephant