We Were Liars is a 2014 young adult mystery thriller novel by E. Lockhart. The story follows Cadence Eastman, a teenage girl who is part of a large, wealthy, and influential family, the Sinclairs. She spends every idyllic summer on Beechwood Island, privately owned by her family and situated near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, upon which her grandfather built homes for himself, all of his daughters, and their families to stay in. She would spend much of these summers with her cousins Johnny and Mirren and Johnny’s best friend Gat, who is invited to come along every year. Together, the four of them are known as the “Liars.” The summer of her fifteen year, Cady had a whirlwind romance with Gat, experiencing a sense of love that dulled the pain of her parents’ divorce.
However, that’s all Cady remembers of that summer. She had an accident, though she doesn’t remember the cause, and now she suffers from crippling migraines. Gat was nowhere to be seen as she recovered in hospital, none of her family wants to talk to her about what happened, and it’s been two years since she last visited the island. Relishing the chance to reconnect with her cousins and her beloved Gat, despite the pain of him disappearing on her, she is determined to find out what happened to her that fateful summer.
Though this book was quite popular at the time of its publication, I didn’t actually learn about it until fairly recently. Granted, I’m not typically on the lookout for YA books like this, but that target audience doesn’t deter me if something catches my interest either. Admittedly, I was drawn in by the sensational discourse/marketing around the book, giving the tantalizing promise of a shocking twist. I was skeptical of how much it could really shock or surprise me, but I was happy to give it a chance anyway.
Right of the bat, I will say that Lockhart is damn good at crafting an addictive read. I was surprised to find myself going through the whole thing after only a small handful of sittings. It’s not especially long, but the book undeniably hooked me. The story captured the intensity of adolescent experiences really well, tapping into nostalgic feelings I myself have for summers spent at cottages with family and friends. I enjoyed reading from Cady’s point of view too; she’s clearly sheltered by her extremely privileged life, a fact the book doesn’t shy away from, but the stifling pressures she nevertheless has to deal with are also highlighted and were decently sympathetic without being overblown. Most notably, these came from her mother, who often pushes her to “act normal” when she gets emotional, for the sake of appearances. I appreciated that much of her problems were ultimately framed as a matter of dysfunctional family.
It was also easy to get caught up in her and Gat’s growing love for one another. It was at times saccharine, but in a way that felt appropriate to their time in life and where they are, this idealized sanctuary where seemingly nothing can go wrong. I never felt like the story was trying to convince me that a deep, profound love had formed between the two, but rather a sincere yet immature and perhaps ultimately fleeting love that so often forms in teenage years. Johnny and Mirren, the other two “Liars,” weren’t unwelcome presences in the story, but were a little too underdeveloped. I had enough of a sense of them that they were distinct, but the nuances of their relationships with Cady could have been better fleshed out.
The mystery itself was compellingly subdued, her family as a whole acting strangely but nobody truly acting in opposition to her. Even among the Liars, whom are very happy to see her after so long, there is an unspoken gulf. The anxious frustration that something happened that everyone else knows about except Cady, which they can’t or won’t talk about, was really palpable and played a significant role in motivating me to keep reading. I won’t say it was a slow burn, but the mystery moved at a slow and steady pace as Cady put the pieces together, getting the reader intimately familiar with Beechwood as a location and the Sinclair family.
Her time spent there trying to regain her memories paints a nicely detailed mental picture of both the setting and the people inhabiting it, the nuances of the drama between her different family members and who they really are slowly unfurling. We never really come to understand them as fully formed people, but interesting motifs are touched upon along the way, particularly related to class and race. Gat is of Indian descent and the Sinclairs are white, so despite them being liberal-minded Democrats, the older members of the family ultimately view him as an interloper. This is a pivotal factor with respect to a certain part of the story, but it’s otherwise not explored in an especially complex way, tying more into greater themes related to status, control, and trauma.
When it comes right down to it, I enjoyed the build up to the twist much more than the twist itself. Cady ruminating on her experiences and her family was interesting without teasing some grand reveal, but it had to come all the same, what with it ever-looming in the background. The sensationalism around this book was actually strange, because it really doesn’t try to be as melodramatic as the marketing suggests. To be honest, there isn’t even all that much lying, unless you count omission.
Regardless, I’ll be as vague as I can. The twist involves a lot of facets being revealed in succession, which undermined each other a little and were honestly not that shocking. Also, as a whole it was within the ballpark of what I had expected, and I don’t even read a lot of mysteries. It also involved characters making horrendous errors that took me out of it, especially since I don’t think the book properly emphasizes just how much of a blunder had taken place. What I actually did like, however, was that Lockhart committed to something that could have been left ambiguous, which did come across as a little cheesy but was also more affecting for me. The entire ordeal tapped into some visceral feelings that I could understand too, despite my frustrations with the situation, so it wasn’t without merit.
We Were Liars was a sincerely compelling and fast read that was hard to put down. The setting and characters were strong for the story being told and it managed to touch upon some interesting themes, though perhaps in a simplistic way overall. However, I think you should temper your expectations for the twist. I think it was too over-hyped. I still found it’s weaker aspects tolerable, but you might throw your book across the room when you get to it. It’s a more character-focused mystery than plot focused, though, which I think keeps a lot of the story’s strengths intact.
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5