Review: “We Were Liars” by E. Lockhart

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It’s always a delight these days to see something new enter the New York Times YA best-seller list and stay there for longer than a week, so even without the pedigree of Lockhart’s critically acclaimed backlist, the Printz Honour and a cover quote by that John Green guy, We Were Liars is a book that demands attention.

It’s also one that is potentially difficult to talk about without spoiling its proceedings for new readers. Much has been made about the narrative twists and the shocking ending, setting the novel up as something akin to a Hitchcock film. Indeed, comparisons to Hitchcock wouldn’t be entirely unfounded, although to define the novel solely on its ending would be to do it a disservice.

For all the talk of We Were Liars being a taut mystery, its strengths lie in its deft and often caustic analysis of privilege. The family at the centre of the story bear more than a passing resemblance to the Kennedy clan, with all that entails. Cady, the (highly unreliable and extremely damaged) narrator, is the eldest child in the 3rd generation of the Sinclair clan, a golden clan who have been tarnished by divorce, fights over money and a patriarch who gleefully manipulates his three daughters as they scramble for scraps from the inheritance.

As she and her two cousins, half of the Liars of the title, wallow around the family estate each Summer, lamenting the difficulties of their respective lives, it is up to friend and outsider Gat to remind them that they’re all steeped in wealth and shut off from the problems of the real world. That sounds like a given to most of us, but it comes as a genuine shock to Cady. Lockhart’s deftly handled prose works well with this theme, although one can also see how this particular exploration of privilege would be off-putting to many readers with Cady’s narration pushing the “poor little rich people” angle. The novel’s pay-off also partially depends on the reader’s commitment to the concept, and whether they feel as if Cady and the people of her world deserve some kind of redemption, or at least understanding. Privilege is a concept that carries a lot of weight these days, and Lockhart handles a potentially contentious issue with the right touch, and reminds the reader that while they may not live like the Sinclairs, we’re all privileged on some level.

Cady herself is, to use that loaded term, unlikeable, but she’s also wholly fascinating. Her self-pitying attempts to shed her wealth by giving away her possessions only highlights her lack of self-awareness while she simultaneously draws attention to her plight while asking people to ignore it. All of this is coming from a narrator with serious memory issues and a possible addiction to painkillers, and even those readers who don’t quite click with the book can admire Lockhart’s wholehearted dedication to the character and her disjointed mind as she jumps from the past to the present while telling her own twisted fairy tales that act as stand-ins for her family. While some of the stylistic changes may leave some readers feeling detached, I personally felt that Lockhart made the right choices for the story of the novel as well as maintaining the ominous mood.

The main issues with the novel lie in the sketchy characterisation of the supporting cast, who are fleshed out enough to make the novel move forward but not enough to create any lasting impression. Cady offers brief descriptions of the other Liars yet we never really see those brief declarations shown on the page. It’s disappointing, especially since Lockhart is so skilled at creating a world with short bursts of prose. The opening of the novel is a particularly strong example of that. The shortness of the book is also a touch underwhelming, coming in at a mere 240 pages. Moments feel underdone (which can be justified given the deliberately mosaic styling) and the story easily could have been pushed to 300 pages without feeling as if it overstayed its welcome. Then again, as a reviewer, I’d rather complain about a novel being too short than too long.

While it may leave many readers feeling understandably cold, We Were Liars is a strongly written and sophisticated novel that offers an insight and analysis into a world that inspires both fascination and derision. Lockhart skilfully juggles a fractured narrative, a divisive central theme and old school thriller to create something that commands the attention of readers, even with its faults.

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