May 15, 2014

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars by E. LockhartWe Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars is the story of seventeen-year-old Cadence Sinclair Eastman, a member of the illustrious Sinclair family. The Sinclairs, Cady tells us,
…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.
We are Sinclairs.
No one is needy.
No one is wrong.
Cady has spent every summer on Beechwood, her family’s private island off the coast of Massachusetts, for as long as she can remember. But during summer fifteen, something goes horribly wrong: there’s an accident, Cady hits her head and nearly drowns, and she starts suffering from terrible and debilitating migraines as a consequence. It’s now summer seventeen, and Cady is going back to Beechwood Island after two years away. There’s a lot she can’t remember about the time surrounding her accident, and she knows her family is trying to shield her from the truth. But Cady wants to know, and she hopes that returning to the place where it all happened will help her memories resurface.

If you know anything at all about We Were Liars, you probably know that it’s a Book with a Twist. I’ll try my best not to turn this post into an extended rant about how I think that promoting and discussing this book with an exclusive emphasis on the twist does it a disservice; having said that, I do want to talk a little bit about how I think it’s a shame that the twist will most likely dominate the conversation about We Were Liars, at the exclusion of other angles. While I liked the novel a lot (though not quite as much as The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks or the Ruby Oliver series), I don’t think the reveal is anywhere near the most interesting thing about it.

To be clear, I’m as interested in unreliable narrators and storytelling sleights-of-hand as any other reader, and I completely understand the need to comment on these aspects of the novel. But here’s why the conversation around books with twists sometimes frustrates me: because inevitably there will be someone somewhere who will turn the very human urge to compare notes on our reactions into a game of “I guessed sooner than anyone else; in fact, anyone who didn’t guess at the exact same moment as I did must be hopelessly stupid”. I dislike this framing of the conversation in terms that belittle other readers, unwittingly or not, and a quick perusal of, say, Goodreads reveals that already there’s no shortage of “It’s so obvious, seriously, how could anyone possibly have been surprised?” comments surrounding We Were Liars.

More often than not, I’m one of the readers this kind of phrasing casts as stupid. It’s very rare for me to see a twist coming, and after years of feeling vaguely embarrassed every time I read something along the lines of the commentary above, I’ve made my peace with this. I’ve also developed a theory as to why it happens: being able to see a twist coming is as much about familiarity as it is about close reading. It’s about being able to make sense of what kind of story you’re reading, and the more familiar you are with the grammar of storytelling, the easier it’ll come. As readers of this blog will know, I read a fair deal, and I know a thing or two about the different shapes stories can take. However, I didn’t grow up immersed in the kinds of narratives that dominate the Anglophone world (and I include TV and movies as much as books here), and that affects the kind of stories that are immediately recognizable to me.

The conversation around We Were Liars got me thinking about how often we mistake privilege (in this case, ease of access to, and deep familiarity with, narratives from a culturally dominant tradition) for intelligence, perceptiveness, and individual superiority — which is actually quite relevant to the themes of this book.

To go my back to my original point, the twist is not the most interesting thing about We Were Liars, and I really hope I’ll find more discussions that go beyond it. To me this was actually a novel for which Jenny’s strategy of reading the end first would have come in handy, because reading it while thinking that the twist ought to be the point proved deeply unsatisfying. When I finished We Were Liars, I immediately reread parts one to four — not so I could scout for clues, but so I could read it closely and slowly with an eye on context, without the constant tension of having theories disproved or confirmed getting in the way; so I could focus on the why without being so distracted by the what.

There will be spoilers in the rest of this post.

I read We Were Liars as a story of political awakening gone horribly wrong — one that provides an interesting analysis of just how it all goes so spectacularly amiss. Cady instigates a plan whose thoughtlessness kills her cousins and the boy she’s in love with, just at a time when she’s starting to think about the glamour of being a Sinclair and the privilege her family enjoys are based on a deep thoughtlessness and disregard for inequality. The following passage captures what I think is the novel’s thematic core:
It is not glamorous that I can’t drive a car. It is not mysterious to be home on a Saturday night, reading a novel in a pile of smelly golden retrievers. However, I am not immune to the feeling of being viewed as a mystery, as a Sinclair, as part of a privileged clan of special people, as part of a magical, important narrative, just because I am part of this clan.
My mother is not immune to it, either.
This is who we have been brought up to be.
Sinclairs. Sinclairs.
With Lockhart’s customary intelligence, We Were Liars invites us to really consider what this “magical, important narrative” is. The traditional heroic narrative, embodied by Cady’s grandfather’s life motto “don’t take no for an answer” — and by her own “always do what you’re afraid to do” — is far more insidious than we might think. Cady starts caring about privilege, inequality, and her own role in upholding an unfair social system in part because she falls in love with Gat, a boy of Indian descent whose race excludes him from her world. She becomes aware of carelessness, of greed, of exclusion — of the ugly pillars supporting the life she’s always taken for granted. And yet, when trying to break free from it, she goes for a forceful and overblown solution; for a dramatic grand gesture with tragic consequences.

Because “this is who [Cady has] been brought up to be”, the departure she imagines is still well within the narrative of success that was passed on to her. She can’t imagine rejecting the careless privilege her family embodies in a way that isn’t informed by that very same careless privilege. How do you write the next chapter of your story when you’re not immune to the allure of belonging to a “magical, important narrative”? How do you redefine what “important” is?

I think my favourite thing about We Were Liars is the fact that it invites empathy for a complicated young woman who’s made an almost unimaginable mistake, even when hardening our hearts against her seems easier. Approaching Cady with empathy doesn’t mean she gets a free pass for the part she played in the deaths of three young people and two trusting dogs; instead, it means examining how the kind of heroic narrative Cady falls prey to informs our own understanding of the world.

Cady’s deceased cousin Mirren, we learn, had a very different life motto: “be a little kinder than you have to be”. Mirren, who was just as privileged as Cady, is a reminder that the kind of departure she fails at so spectacularly may be difficult but is not impossible. Though it may seem so at a surface level, We Were Liars is not just a story about spoiled rich kids whose thoughtlessness results in tragedy. It’s a story about the ideals we’re all encouraged to aspire to, because of how our culture defines success: success is being forceful, reckless (which we mistake for brave), hasty, bold. This is a story about the dark, dark underbelly of our understanding of heroism, and its potential to backfire in ways that hurt or kill. We Were Liars is a reminder that we can all strive for a world where “be a little kinder than you have to be” is as valid and admirable a motto as the enormously problematic “don’t take no for an answer” seems to us now — a world where kindness isn’t perceived as weakness and where a wider and truer definition of a heroic, worthwhile and well-lived life is not something we secretly despise.

Many thanks to Amy for discussing this book with me over e-mail — our conversation helped me shape many of the thoughts that found their way into this post.

More bits I liked:
Not long after that, Gat started lending me his books and finding me at the tiny beach in the early evenings. He’d search me out when I was lying on the Windermere lawn with the goldens.
We started walking together on the path that circles the island, Gat in front and me behind. We’d talk about books or invent imaginary worlds. Sometimes we’d end up walking several times around the edge before we got hungry or bored.
Beach roses lined the path, deep pink. Their smell was faint and sweet.
One day I looked at Gat, lying in the Clairmont hammock with a book, and he seemed, well, like he was mine. Like he was my particular person.
I got in the hammock next to him, silently. I took the pen out of his hand — he always read with a pen — and wrote Gat on the back of his left, and Cadence on the back of his right.
He took the pen from me. Wrote Gat on the back of my left, and Cadence on the back of my right.
I am not talking about fate. I don’t believe in destiny or soul mates or the supernatural. I just meant we understood each other. All the way.
But we were only fourteen. I had never kissed a boy, though I would kiss a few the next school year, and somehow we didn’t label it love.

One of his mottos: Don’t take no for an answer.
It had always seemed a heroic way to live. He would say it when advising us to purse our ambitions. When encouraging Johnny to try training for a marathon, or when I failed to win the reading prize in seventh grade. It was something he said when talking about his business strategies, and how he got Gran to marry him. “I asked her four times before she said yes,” he’d always say, retelling one of his favourite Sinclair family legends. “I wore her down. She said yes to shut me up.”
Now, at the breakfast table, watching him eat my toast, “Don’t take no for an answer” seemed like the attitude of a privileged guy who didn’t care who got hurt, so long as his wife had the cute statues she wanted to display in her summer houses.
They read it too: Becky’s Book Reviews, The Cheap Reader, Presenting Lenore, Rhapsody in Books, My Friend Amy, The Book Smugglers

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. I also rarely see twists coming. I'm not sure though it it has to do with familiarity or not with the grammar of storytelling so much as a willingness to immerse oneself deeply into a story with complete trust. This of course means that the whole untrustworthy narrator conceit will not be transparent at all. To me, however, plunging into a different world taking it at its word, so to speak, enhances the experience, putting me INTO the story in a way that a more critical stance would not allow. (or maybe I'm just being defense at being dumb, LOL)

  2. Jill: Pah! There is no smarter reader/critic out there than you. Your explanation makes sense too - and as with most complex things, there's bond to be more than just one reason. The reason why I think familiarity plays a role is that I've had conversations where people go, "But how could you not see it coming? It's just like [movie x]" - where [movie x] will be a classic they've watched countless times over the years and that I've never seen myself (and often haven't heard of). This is especially true of horror/thrillers/suspense stories, and so many twist-y books use tropes from these genres. They're mostly uncharted territory to me, though, so lots of stories that are familiar to other readers catch me by surprise.

  3. Great review, Ana!

    I'm with you as far as the frustration about the twist goes. I didn't see it coming so I enjoyed seeing how things played out. I'm hesitant to read other people's reviews about the book because of the bragging about how soon they guessed the twist. Why can't we all enjoy the story instead of being caught up with who was clever enough to guess first? :-/

  4. Wow, you sold me on it! It sounds absolutely fascinating!

  5. I think too the fact that the book was marketed as "don't give away the ending" etc, kind of clued people into the twist? There's another book Zom-B by Darren Shan that did this same thing and I was totally blindsided, though, so maybe not. Actually, I think it supports your theory about familiarity because "the twist" in that book was more about subverting expectations or using your assumptions against you. I always wished you read that one because I would be particurarly interested in your take on it, but I know you don't like zombies.

    he part she played in the deaths of three young people and two trusting dogs

    the part where she realizes the dogs died just SLAYED ME

  6. I so agree with you that focusing on a book's ENORMOUS TWIST is a disservice to the book. It creates this weirdly adversarial relationship with the author that I don't at all care for -- if the twist is the point, then either the author wins (by concealing it from you until the reveal) or you win (by guessing it before the author reveals it). Either way, it unnecessary pulls focus away from the book qua book (rather than the book as the board for a contest).

    I really don't enjoy reading that way. I can admire the twist so much more when I see how the author built it. It's less about whether she managed to !SHOCK! you, and more about whether she wrote a plot that hangs together and works well (which is true of ANY book).

    *waves "reading the end" banner*

  7. ha, I know what you mean Jenny, but I sort of love that feeling of being totally shocked? I enjoy being surprised, IDK. And that's why I never want to know if there's a twist, bc then I'm trying to guess it and it's irritating.

  8. Like Amy, I love, love, love being shocked, so I don't mind that I rarely see twists coming (except when I am The Only One in the Universe). Also my love of them means that I don't see them as an adversarial thing in which one of us wins. Rather, to me, the author has gone to great trouble to figure out how to delight the reader, and succeeds all the more in delighting a reader who is oblivious, like me!

  9. I sometimes see twists coming and sometimes don't. I often don't trust first-person narrators, so that helps me see lies (but it also makes me distrust characters I'm supposed to believe, so it's not a positive tendency). Anyway, whether I do or don't see something coming doesn't necessarily speak to the quality of the book or my skill as a reader. I like being surprised, but I don't need it to enjoy a twisty book. I can only think of a couple of books that would have been significantly "spoiled" if I'd known the twist, and I'd probably still have enjoyed seeing how the author pulled it off.

    And I'm with you in disliking conversation that focuses totally on the "twist" in a book. It so often takes the conversation or future readers' attention away from stuff that's more important or interesting. I remember being disappointed by Code Name Verity because I was expecting a more complicated twist, and while seeking it, I ceased paying attention to the portrait of a friendship that was being drawn. I actually heard an interview with Kazuo Ishiguru several years ago in which he said he didn't mind if people knew the secret that's gradually revealed in Never Let Me Go before reading the book because the book wasn't about the secret but about what it means. I think that's often true of books with twisty plots.

  10. I love this post and agree with so much of what you said here. I will be reviewing it next week and my review basically says "I don't want to tell you anything, read the book" LOL. BUT I loved reading your thoughts.

    I don't usually see twists coming, either, although with this book it was obvious SOMETHING was going to happen because there was this super ominous, something is off feeling for me throughout the entire book. But I am in total agreement with you that the twist is not at all the point, that there is so much more to this novel than the "gotcha" moment at the end.

    And the dogs? I'm with Amy. I DIED.

  11. I find this post absolutely fascinating! (I quit reading at spoiler section because I really want to read it though!) I don't usually see a twist coming either--even when I know there is a twist because of hype. I am privileged in this regard, so that has nothing to do with why *I* don't. I've always wondered if it's because I'm too trusting, sort of like Jill said in her comment. I just get so involved in the story. I think that's why I cry so. damn. much. when I read too.

  12. I am one of those people who tends to see twists coming - and I always tell my students the reasoning is simple: I grew up immersed in Western literature, television, and culture. I am an avid reader, an addicted tv watcher, and a studier. I tell my students you need three things to make literary analysis and predictions easier (stolen directly from How to Read Literature Like a Professor): Memory, Symbol, and Pattern. Of course, you also need to be almost objectively reading - which is something I don't always enjoy. There's something to be said for immersing yourself so fully that you aren't "over actively" reading and get to feel the surprise of the twist. I try to turn "it" off as often as possible these days.

  13. Fabulous post Nymeth, thank you. You always make me think and realize how much I miss in my readings. All the comments here are fascinating, too.

  14. This is one of the books I was most looking forward this year and I'm glad that the general reviews are good. Was a bit afraid after liking Frankie so much.

    I'll come back to this review once I've read it.

  15. Loved this review and your interpretation of Caddy's story. The ending really brought home that theme of awakening for me too.

    And totally agree about your ideas on seeing the twist coming. I'm usually spectacularly obtuse to twists (I think this was clear when we talked about The Thief with Renay and Ana), but sometimes like with this book I see them coming and it is so much down to having read this kind of thing before. I've steeped myself in teen novels about unreliable narrators and missing memory so much that I recognise the patterns and the (as you so wonderfully put it) grammar of this kind of storytelling. Twist stories of other kinds are also very familiar from early education. We had books where characters with male sounding names turned out to be girls, and I've read a lot of those types of books on my own.

  16. Excellent post, Nymeth! And such thoughtful comments, too. I read this book last weekend and even knowing there was a twist, didn't see it coming or figure it out before hand... I rarely do. I especially like Jill's explanation in the comment above and think trust and complete immersion in the narrative are the big reasons. Now that I know what happens, I plan to read the book again.

    I also appreciate that your post goes beyond the twist and gets at the larger themes. We Were Liars makes me think I should be reading more than just a couple of YA titles each year. I certainly want to read more by this author

  17. Honestly so confused, could someone please explain? How does Cady actually hit her head and happen to be in the water, or did that not actually happen?

  18. Just finished this and I'm still deciding whether it was amazing or not. I do want to re-read it, both to look for clues, but also, as you said, to enjoy the writing and the themes without thinking about what the twist might be.

    To Anon who asked about what happened to Cady... that's a good question. I think it either didn't happen at all, or she ran to the beach to save herself from the fire burning her and then ended up banging her head? It would make sense as she only burned her hands and feet, but they also say at the end that the headaches happened because of her guilt and remorse so I'm not sure. I can't believe I've just finished listening to it and I don't know.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.