Monday, June 30, 2014

E. Lockhart's We Were Liars

E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars is a real page-turner, and an excellent summer read, since it takes place on the Sinclair family’s private island near Martha’s Vineyard over the course of several summers. 

The mystery revolves around the main character, Cady, who had an accident of some kind on the island the summer before she turned 16, but can’t remember exactly what happened. She thinks it involved a traumatic brain injury, which would explain the memory lapses and the constant migraine headaches she’s had for the two years since then.

Returning to the island the summer she’s 17, Cady is beginning slowly to put the pieces together, aided by her cousins Mirren and Jonny, and also her aunt’s boyfriend’s nephew Gat Patil. Gat has been coming to the island for years, long enough to be like one of the family—but he’s not one of the family, as Cady’s grandfather makes clear to him when he and Cady fall in love.

Lockhart does a great job of taking what would seem like the ultimate fantasy and revealing its dark side. A private island off Cape Cod, where each of the patriarch’s three daughters has her own giant, luxurious house; a boat to zip over to Edgartown or Nantucket whenever you feel like it; staff to cook and clean for you: Idyllic, right? Until you see how insular and claustrophobic it can be. And until you realize that you can’t escape from the WASPy drama that Cady’s grandfather manufactures and plays out in ever more disturbing ways.

Or does he?

There’s a twist at the end here that I didn’t see coming at all—one of those twists, in fact, that makes you want to go back and re-read the whole novel to spot the early clues. I found it both clever and a bit of a cheat, frankly, but maybe that’s because I was so thoroughly not expecting it. But it also makes Cady a far less sympathetic character, and casts doubt on her account of the family and its interactions with each other. Did all of these things really happen? Is her grandfather really that much of a villain, her aunts and mother such grabby shrews? 

At first I found myself a little put off by the use of the well-worn stereotype of the beautiful, blonde New England aristocratic family that seems perfect, but which is actually rotting in a morass of lies, silences, denials, and addictions. The ending complicates this stereotype, but I’m not sure it effectively undermines it, or offers a satisfying alternative to it. 

Interestingly, the keys that finally unlock Cady’s memory come from the Andrew Lang fairy-tale collections that her father gave her as a child. From time to time throughout the novel, Cady pauses to visit the language of fairy tales, trying to frame her family’s story as a modern version of an old tale—Beauty and the Beast or Sleeping Beauty, as well as some more unusual ones like Donkeyskin and Cap O’Rushes, as well as a few that are purely of Cady’s own making. Slowly, these “make believe” stories lead her to the truth.

I really think I’ll need to re-read this before I can feel settled about my response to it—but in the meantime, the feeling of being unsettled by it and about it isn’t unpleasant.