We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Delacorte Press, May 2014
Genre: YA Contemporary, Suspense
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.
We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from New York Times bestselling author, National Book Award finalist, and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart.
And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.
My friend Brooke has been telling me to read We Were Liars by E. Lockhart for YEARS. Its island setting reminded her, she said, of my family’s annual vacations on an island in Georgian Bay, Ontario. I’d love it! It’s the perfect summer read.
So, wishing for warmer weather in these last few rainy weeks of school, I finally settled down to read it. And it was just as good as Brooke had promised. Fast-paced, quietly suspenseful, and with the endless-days feel of summer. But it also provided a sharp commentary on privilege, one that has me looking at my own family’s experience with new eyes.
Cadence “Cady” Sinclair Eastman hails from the wealthy Sinclair family. They’re old money, athletic and good-looking, and they’ve been vacationing on their private island off Massachusetts for generations. Cady grew up running wild with her two cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and family friend Gat, swimming and boating and getting into trouble. They’re the Liars. But during their fifteenth summer, Cady suffers a terrible accident. She doesn’t remember what happened, and after spending a lonely two years away from her cousins, she convinces her overprotective mother to let her return to the island to see if that helps jog her memory. Everything’s the same – except for Granddad’s new, austere house, and her younger cousins’ nightmares, and the fact that no one’s talking to Cady about the night of the accident. Slowly Cady sifts back through her memories and what should be a perfect summer to figure out what really happened.
Plot-wise, We Were Liars is an intriguing mystery that slowly unwinds into a shocking (though not entirely unexpected) twist ending. But in every other respect, it’s a scathing critique of Cady’s unexamined privilege. Gat, whose family is Indian, is passionate about injustice, and his questions gradually push Cady and her cousins to open their eyes to their family’s lifestyle.
There’s the fact that Granddad never calls Gat by his real name, just calls him “son,” a subtle way of acknowledging his inferiority compared to the white, blonde Sinclairs. There are the ivory sculptures Cady’s grandparents bought in China, which Granddad laughs off when Cady asks if it’s illegal:
You can get it, he said, about the ivory. One of his mottos: Don’t take no for an answer.
There are the elaborate meals with fancy French cheeses and fresh lobsters prepared by invisible staff. When Gat casually mentions a name Cady’s never heard, he’s horrified to realize she doesn’t even know the names of the staff who cook and clean for the family. She doesn’t fully realize why this is problematic, but she does grow disgusted with her mother’s attachment to objects, and begins giving away all her belongings.
But Cady doesn’t fully open her eyes to her own privilege, and casual references to unexamined facts abound. At the start of the book, when she’s describing the family tree and origins of their summers on the island, she says:
Penny, Carrie, and Bess are the daughters of Tipper and Harris Sinclair. Harris came into his money at twenty-one after Harvard and grew the fortune doing business I never bothered to understand. He inherited houses and land. He made intelligent decisions about the stock market. He married Tipper and kept her in the kitchen and the garden. He put her on display in pearls and on sailboats. She seemed to enjoy it.
In the same breath where she acknowledges her grandmother was more of a trophy than a wife, she passes off her grandfather’s wealth as “business I never bothered to understand.” She doesn’t have to understand it – she has the luxury of knowing the money that feeds and clothes and educates and entertains her is assured, and she doesn’t even have to question where it comes from.
I won’t spoil the ending, but ultimately, Cady’s frustration with her family’s dependence on money and objects ties into the accident she can’t remember. Lockhart has designed a well-crafted mystery with no loose ends, and it’s incredibly satisfying.
It also forced me to look at my own family’s summer vacations in a new light. Brooke’s insistence that I’d love the book because we vacation on an island every year threw me for a loop at first: we aren’t as snobby or status-obsessed as the Sinclairs, I kept thinking. We don’t have invisible staff or lobster dinners or endless bottles of wine. I’m absurdly proud of the fact that electricity and plumbing are luxuries at our cabin, and that we have to do all our dishes by hand.
But I can enjoy our rustic summer lifestyle in part because I don’t live that way for 50 weeks out of the year, and my feelings smack of the Gilded Age millionaires who “roughed it” in fancy cabins to “get back to the land.” For years, when acquaintances asked me what I was doing over the summer, I’d mention a family vacation in a cabin in Canada but elide over the fact that the cabin is located on a private island. I’ve been aware of both my privilege and my discomfort with acknowledging it for as long as I can remember.
The Sinclairs may be an extreme (if still realistic) example. But I have more in common with them than I’d like to think.