'We Were Liars' is a sharp look at how the other half lives

This young adult novel centers on the privileged Sinclair family and the bitterness and jealousy beneath their veneer of perfection.

We Were Liars By E. Lockhart Random House Children's Books 240 pp.

Lifestyles of the fabulously wealthy – from the outside, they seem so glossy and carefree. E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars gives us a peek inside the gilded chalice, but what's found there is one long, uncomfortable drink of water, rippling with bitterness, jealousy, and inadequacy.

“Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family,” the novel begins. “No one is a criminal. No one is an addict. No one is a failure.... No one is needy. No one is wrong.” Oh, how the Sinclairs delude themselves.

The summer when she was 15, something happened to Cadence Sinclair Eastman while summering on her family’s private island. For two years after, she suffered memory loss and debilitating migraines. She returns to the island at 17 to piece together the shards of the accident, but it’s a twisted journey.

The Sinclairs are New England elite. They retreat to their island near Martha’s Vineyard every summer, led by patriarch Harris, Cadence’s grandfather. Cadence, her cousins Johnny and Mirren, and Johnny’s friend Gat – collectively known as The Liars, for no apparent reason – grew up lounging on the beach with an endless supply of fudge and strawberries. (Spoiler alert: Cadence and Gat are an item.)

However, behind the beautiful Sinclair veneer lies a family reeking of vitriol and failure. Cadence’s grandmother is the glue, and when she passes on, the hundreds of hairline fractures in the facade are thrown into high relief.

At the heart of the rot is the Sinclair estate, which includes the private island, a few mansions, and princely sums of money. Harris – hypocritical, proud, patriarchal Harris – relishes the power he wields in settling the estate and makes his daughters compete for his favor.

Cadence’s fractured memory recalls brief flashes, and Lockhart works magic in weaving them together. "We Were Liars" reads like a villanelle in the way it loops back on itself with chants and echoes. Each repetition of the refrain shows us another hidden angle, drums the phrases into our minds, and when we finally learn the truth, it’s as if a bomb goes off.

"We Were Liars" is pretty much the opposite of a young adult novel like Jenny Han's "To All the Boys I've Loved Before". Han's book is a paean to sisterhood, while "We Were Liars" is a primer for vicious sibling rivalry. The “liars” are ostensibly the four kids, but more often than not, it’s King Harris and his three poisonous princesses who twist the truth.

The Sinclair aunts, having squandered their inheritances long ago, are backstabbing, empty, self-loathing harpies. They try to use their children as pawns in power plays, but the Liars refuse to take the bait.

“My mother and her sisters were dependent on Granddad and his money,” Cadence says. “They had the best educations, a thousand chances, a thousand connections, and still they’d ended up unable to support themselves. None of them did anything useful in the world. Nothing necessary. Nothing brave. They were still little girls, trying to get in good with Daddy.”

Lockhart has a choppy, poetic style in which the crags are offset by luxurious turns of phrase. I love the moment when Gat likens himself to Heathcliff in "Wuthering Heights" to show Cadence that Harris will never accept him. Gat is bitter: “There’s nothing Heathcliff can ever do to make these Earnshaws think he’s good enough. And he tries. He goes away, educates himself, becomes a gentleman. Still, they think he’s an animal.... Heathcliff becomes what they think of him, you know? He becomes a brute. The evil in him comes out.”

Cadence dismisses the notion that her dear granddad can think anything of the sort, but Gat is firm. “I’m telling you, he does,” he presses. “A brute beneath a pleasant surface, betraying his kindness in letting me come to his sheltered island every year – I’ve betrayed him by seducing his Catherine, his Cadence. And my penance is to become the monster he always saw in me.”

Lockhart plays with variations like this, flitting between shades of gray, little fibs, outright lies, or wishful thinking; twists of meaning and misinterpretations abound, often deliberate.

Be advised that Cadence flirts with magical realism in describing the migraines she suffers while racking her faulty memory – “a giant [wielding] a rusty saw ... slicing through [Cadence’s] forehead and into the mind behind it.” It threw me for a loop at first, but I grew used to it in time.

One last note: I can’t even tell you – no, seriously, I cannot tell you – how much the ending shocked me. It’s not an easy book, but you’ll want to read it twice. Stunningly sharp, "We Were Liars" will sear itself into your memory.

Katie Ward Beim-Esche is the Monitor's young adult fiction critic.

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