'We Were Liars' delivers hard truths

Delacorte Press

By Alex Bernard , Daily Arts Writer
Published May 21, 2014

Dear readers, you are all too familiar with the novel and its tricks, traps, and tropes that reel in audiences like fish chasing bait on fantasy-adventure hooks. And, through these techniques, fiction, as you bookworms are surely aware, is designed to make sense.

We Were Liars

E. Lockhart
Delacorte Press

People like to know that justice will be done or that injustice will prove some sort of grandiose point about humanity or existence or capital-S Something .

And yet, in E. Lockhart’s (“The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks,” “The Boyfriend List”) new novel, “We Were Liars,” the pieces to the puzzle are tossed out the metaphorical window and replaced with square pegs that just don’t seem to fit into the round holes, at least as far as the reader is concerned. In fact, in the first few lines, the reader is told:

“No one is a criminal. No one is an addict. No one is a failure.”

Welcome to the Land of Liars, where the stories are made up and the truths don’t matter. Please leave your reliable narrators at the door.

In “We Were Liars,” Lockhart tells the story of the Sinclairs, a family with about as many problems as dollars and enough secrets to last through 240 deceitful pages.

The narrator is Cadence Sinclair, the seventeen year-old heir to her grandfather’s fortune, who spends her summers on the family island – Beechwood – just off the East Coast. SPOILER ALERT: She is a liar.

Once on Beechwood, Cady passes her time with cousins Johnny and Mirren and with handsome love interest and outsider Gat. Together, the four dub themselves the “Liars,” and serve as the novel’s protagonists, fueling the story by reeking havoc on the other Sinclairs while also providing an emotional hook that reels the reader into their tale.

At first, “We Were Liars” reads like a typical summer young adult novel, full of quirky relatives, nosy grandfathers, and kisses in the attic that are both “electric and soft”.

The mood turns, however, when Cady vaguely describes an “accident” during “summer fifteen” (when she was 15 years old), but is unable to recall the events leading up to and following her injury. The result? She skips the next summer at Beechwood, not returning until she’s seventeen, newly obsessed with unveiling the truth.

Now do not be deceived, dear reader, this is no story of beginning, middle and end. Truth be told (for once), the end is in the middle, the middle is the end and the beginning was never really a beginning to begin with – read the book. (Then reread this paragraph, nod your head and say, “Yeah that’s true.”)

And it is in this backwards, forwards, and altogether scrambled action that Lockhart succeeds in pulling a shroud over the behind-the-scenes mechanics. Fueled by smart dialogue, heart-pounding suspense and a narrator whose voice and passion fuel the novel’s engine like coal in a train (do trains still use coal anymore?), “We Were Liars” lulls its readers into a false sense of trust, only to flip the script in the last few pages.

Before this final twist though, the novel operates somewhat flatly. While amusing, the characters are trope-like and static, save for Cadence, whose wit, reactions and interpretations carry an otherwise rhythmic and predictable series of events. Throughout the entire novel, Lockhart makes up for this insufficiency through solid detail, sharp observation and a narrator whose thoughts will bounce around your head for days.

Without Cady though, the novel itself is merely an exceptional piece of work without that extraordinary dash of unforgettable action. Not only the teenagers, but also the adults come off as two-dimensional and somewhat undynamic. The result is a beaten-down experience that makes one wish a paramedic would come around with a defibrillator and shock the characters into life.

And lo! The paramedics arrive by the droves! One for every character and each plotline!

Yes, a good novel is certainly not a good novel without a good ending. Lockhart knows it too and delivers big time.

Just as the reader expects the narration to drift into an expository tone, the last few chapters deliver a shock that jolts the spine, gooses the bumps, and I’m not crying; I just have something in both of my eyes!

A stunning, “what just happened?” twist gives precious life to an expertly crafted piece of work that relies heavily upon its unpredictability and dishonesty. Through a truly unforgettable – and quite jarring – reveal, Lockhart keeps the reader questioning until the bitter end.

Yet do not be deceived again, dear reader. You may expect Lockhart’s conclusion to leave you with answers to your questions, but that’s not quite the case. Instead, the turn of events will weigh on your thoughts, making your brain feel like a heavy burlap sack filled with nickels and quarters.

“We Were Liars,” more than anything, is a defibrillator itself, shocking the reader to life and awareness, forcing us to reconsider why bad things happen to anyone at all. Lockhart challenges the nature of grief and shows us that, in the face of pointless tragedy, people are still people.

In this hard truth lies the crux of Lockhart’s best work to date: an honest, thrilling story about a kid who discovers that life isn’t fair and everyone is a liar.

Welcome to the land of liars. Check your trust at the door.