It seems magical: a private island off Massachusetts, where the “beautiful, rich” extended Sinclair family has summered for years. Indeed, author E. Lockhart’s descriptions, told via 17-year-old narrator Cady, are so lovely and evocative that you’d swear you smelled muffins baking:
“If you got up early on Beechwood, back when we were small, you could go to Clairmont and wake Gran. She’d have muffin batter sitting in the fridge, and would pour it into tins, and let you eat as many warm muffins as you wanted, before the rest of the island woke up.”
The writing is beautiful, inviting, haunting. Yet. Even as Cady drew me in, and I read the pages more and more eagerly, I felt removed from the events, and distanced from the characters. Frustrating though that was, it made sense. After all, We Were Liars is filtered through the splintered memory of a 17-year-old girl trying to piece together a traumatic incident two summers earlier.
This is what the reader knows: the Sinclairs are rich and beautiful, three adult daughters set against each other by their powerful father and his manipulation of their future inheritance.
“Grandad and Tipper loved the girls so, they couldn’t say whom they loved best. They built three new houses on their craggy private island and gave them each a name: Windemere for Penny, Red Gate for Carrie, and Cuddledown for Bess. I am the eldest Sinclair grandchild. Heiress to the island, the fortune, and the expectations. Well, probably.”
The teenagers—Cady, her cousins Johnny and Mirren, and their friend Gat—are nicknamed the Liars. As the adults drink, fight and drink some more, the Liars swim, sail, resist their role as pawns in play for the family fortune and, for Cady and Gat, fall in love.
“I had come here to this island from a house of tears and falsehood and I saw Gat, and I saw that rose in his hand, and in that one moment, with the sunlight from the window shining in on him, the apples on the kitchen counter, the smell of wood and ocean in the air, I did call it love.”
One night, the summer they were all 15, Cady went swimming alone, wearing nothing but a camisole, bra and underwear. She remembers plunging into the ocean. Her mother found her on the sand, curled in a ball, shivering uncontrollably. The hospital found hypothermia, respiratory problems and assumed a head injury. She had no memory of what led up to the accident.
“I must have swam out far. There are big rocks in off the shore, craggy and black; they always look villainous in the dark of the evening. I must have had my face in the water and then hit my head on the rocks. Like I said, I don’t know.”
For the next two years, at the advice of doctors, nobody will give Cady the details of the accident. She suffers crippling migraines and feels abandoned by the other Liars. Finally, the summer she is 17 she returns to the island and tries, with the Liars, to piece it all back together.
“I lay in bed in the dark and felt desperately sorry for myself. Because I was sick, and even more because Gat never called. He didn’t write either. The bottom line is, Gat bailed when I got hurt. I never got an explanation. I only know he left me.”
And, of course, we know this: They were liars.
From an early recommendation in Oprah Magazine, to a no-holds-barred endorsement by The Fault in Our Stars author John Green, to an immersive online campaign, We Were Liars had buzz from the get-go. None of that would account for much, however, if the story weren’t stunningly written, gripping, haunting; four teens trying to break a selfish and destructive legacy with disastrous and, really, foreseeable consequences.
Beautiful. Rich. Liars. Were they? Or was that simply less painful to believe than the truth?