Review: ‘We Were Liars’ by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars

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.

A lot of friends have raved about this book. A LOT. I ordered it out of curiosity and then got a little nervous about reading it. I’m a bit of a snob for commercial fiction, if that’s a thing. Literary fiction where nothing much seems to happen bores me. And literary fiction where none of the characters are likeable makes me cross; at university I did a review presentation of a litfic book where I got up in class and said the main character should just stop whining and being an ass to everyone.

I got pretty good marks for that class.

I’m not sure if We Were Liars is literary in the purest sense, but it has some of the trappings of literary fiction.

So. I was nervous. But also intrigued, because the blurb, as you can see, makes a big deal about keeping the plot twist a secret, and my friends were being all cagey. “What is this thing?” I thought to myself. “I must know.”

I read the book yesterday evening.

That’s the first thing. We Were Liars is a short read. In the end, that’s one of the reasons I picked it up when I did; I didn’t want to dive into something huge. In this case, its (lack of) length is a virtue — it meant that the various plot revelations moved at a decent pace, which stopped me from getting bogged down in the occasionally dense prose.

The Prose

We Were Liars is written in a very choppy, fragmented style. The chapters are short — often a single page — and Lockhart makes great use of sentence fragments. I didn’t mind those, but one thing that drove me nuts was the way she
put in line breaks
when the main
was felling intense emotion.

Every time I hit one of these little snippets of poetry — usually when Cady, said main character, kissed her love interest, but occasionally at other times — it jarred me right out of the moment and I had to re-read the sentence two or three times to make sense of it. Ick.

On the other hand, interspersed throughout the book are these little fairytales Cady writes about a king and his three beautiful daughters. They are metaphors for Cady’s mother and two aunts, and their rather awful father. I quite enjoyed those.

The characters

The first two things you encounter in this book are a map of the island (largely unecessary but a nice touch), and a family tree. During the first part of the book, I got so confused by all the names that I flicked back to that family tree every other paragraph. I did eventually — more or less — get a handle on who was who, but Lockhart doesn’t take the time to introduce you gently. She throws you in the deep end.

Cady is a somewhat insufferable, priviliged girl who doesn’t really understand how lucky she is until it’s pointed out to her — and even then, she doesn’t really get it. Every summer she and her family go to her grandfather’s private island (as you do). She hangs out with the two other cousins her age, Johnny and Mirren, and Johnny’s best friend, Gat. Gat is American Indian and is the only one that calls the cousins out on just how lucky they are. I quite liked Gat.

On the other hand, I had mixed feelings about Cady. Honestly, I’m not sure we’re meant to like her that much. The way she tells her story is quite detached and often cold. As an example, her offhanded comments about not knowing the names of the long-term household staff was a bit of a shock. (At least by the end she knows their names. She does grow, so she gets points for that.)

For reasons I don’t understand, once Gat starts coming to the island the rest of the family begins calling the gang of four “the Liars”. I wish this had been explained better, because they don’t seem particularly deceptive for the most part. The label didn’t fit, and felt a bit too much like the writer was trying to be clever.

The story

When Cady and the rest of the “Liars” are fifteen, Cady has an accident and winds up with amnesia and crippling migraines. The accident leaves her with a curious lack of telltale scars, which would have rendered her less beautiful, when being a beautiful member of her family was one of her defining characteristics. (Scars would have also tipped the reader off to a certain extent as to the nature of the accident, and undermined the TA-DA moment at the end.)

Two years later, she goes back to the island and starts to unravel the mystery of what happened that summer.

I’m not going to go into details. There’s very little you can say about this plot that isn’t totally spoileriffic. I didn’t guess the plot twist (although I had suspicions heading in that general direction), so that was kind of neat. And I didn’t hate it; it was interesting enough that after I finished the book I flicked back through the pages for half an hour, revisiting certain scenes to admire the foreshadowing. It did feel a tiny bit derivative, but not so much that it bothered me.

One thing the ending didn’t do was make me cry. Maybe that makes me a bit of a robot, or maybe it’s a sign that the book just didn’t pull me in as much as it did others.

I’m giving We Were Liars 3.5 stars. It interested me enough that I stayed up past my bedtime to finish it in one sitting (with a break to watch the new Doctor Who), but I wouldn’t read it again.

Three-and-a-half stars

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