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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

We Were Liars

We Were Liars, E. Lockhart
Delacorte, May 2014
Reviewed from ARC

For the first formal writeup of the season, I thought I’d tackle the first likely contender I read (I read this one in late 2013, so I was early).

Also, I know lots of people are itching to talk about it.

First, pedigree: this one made our longlist in a whopping 4 categories. Buzz (although some of that was manufactured by the smart marketing people who knew they had something worth pushing); previous winner (The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, 2009 Printz Honor book); stars (five of them); and interest (Frankie was one of my committee’s picks, and I also love love love Lockhart’s smart, sly Ruby Oliver books, which seem fluffy on the outside and are actually protein and pathos packed when you dig in.)

Now, I like intricately plotted books that work seamlessly when I read them but leave me thinking about the author’s skill in putting all the bits together once I’ve finished reading. I also like mysteries and unreliable narrators.

In other words, We Were Liars was made for me — but that’s not what  makes it a worthy contender.

So what does?

The writing is smart — the characters are intelligent, the plotting is deft, the characters are complex and often unpleasant but distressingly believable. There are rich allusions to Shakespeare’s King Lear and a fairy tale motif Cadence uses to get at truths too unpleasant to face head on runs through. If we don’t mind books that do have a message (but not a MESSAGE), then holla, because this is a nuanced look at how awful family can be. In the midst of privilege, Cadence, Mirren, and Johnny — and maybe Gat, although for different reasons — are left without guidance or nurture, silenced every time they ask for help, and the results are horrific. That’s literary chops and theme, both considerations for Printz recognition.

But the thing that really makes this a standout is the voice.

Cadence’s voice is a marvel: spare, poetic, revealing but never expository. She’s a series of contradictions — she can cuttingly talk about how her grandfather “kept” her grandmother and moments later state — with no apparent recognition of the issues she’s revealing — that she and her mother discarded everything from her father when he left them and went shopping to replace the loss. She can be filled with hate for everything Sinclair, and yet still tilt up her chin, act normal, and even take pride and delight in being a Sinclair. She can be awful in so many ways, and yet still elicit sympathy from the reader.

It’s a voice that creates a portrait that makes the secret lurking in her forgotten past utterly believable — she’s stubborn and believes in her own infallibility, because she’s a Sinclair. She understands the value of material possessions, because she’s a Sinclair. She knows exactly how to hurt the people she loves, because she’s been raised in a world where control and pain and luxury all mingle. But she’s also a Liar, and while we never see why the four teens are known as the Liars, we see how their youth and the inclusion of an outsider, in a family that has gotten rid of all the other outsiders (even Ed, who is seemingly with Carrie only in the city after that first summer, and who can blame him) has brought out a different kind of fight. And just as Cadence consistently embodies tensions, the tension between Sinclair cruelty and Gat’s desire for a certain kind of action, embodied in Cady, lead to the tragedy.

In the end, the issue isn’t going to be about voice but about the reveal. I’ll just say that it worked for me, and for many other readers. And on the second read, knowing what was coming didn’t make it any less compelling, merely different.

Will the early buzz and hard marketing push lead to subconscious pushback from the RealCommittee? Did this peak too early? Will it get tossed aside as a book about first world problems and spoiled little rich girls? I hope not, because this deserves to make the shortlist.

 

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Eric Carpenter says:

    This book blew me away (and brought me to tears) on the first, second, third, and fourth reading. I think everything that is great about this book gets better with every additional reading. The fairy tale interstitial are more meaningful once you know the whole story and it’s so much fun to try to see how exactly Lockhart’s done what she has done.
    I am looking forward to the discussion around this one.

    • I know. I think the last time a book punched me in the gut (emotionally, of course) like that was the senseless (and surprising) death of Hedwig in the 7th Harry Potter book.

      Even “Fault In Our Stars” didn’t make me cry like “We Were Liars” did. In “Stars”, I was anticipating death and sadness, so the ending wasn’t a surprise…and the reaction wasn’t as powerful (which is not to say I didn’t dampen a few tissues). In “Liars”, I was expecting drama, but not THAT!

  2. I’m really interested to see how this discussion shakes out, because I did not care for We Were Liars. I found aspects of the writing itself actually quite good, primarily because of E. Lockhart’s eye for setting and detail. I was compelled to read the story, and I finished it within a week, I believe. But, I always had the nagging sensation from the get-go that something was not quite right, that perhaps Gat and Johnny and Mirren were either long gone or figments of her imagination or something. So when it turned out that they were in fact long gone, I felt like I knew this was going to happen to some degree from the beginning. I also had a lot of trouble seeing any of the characters as particularly well-drawn. They all seemed rather remote and summed up in clever sentences rather than revealed subtly.

    I also thought the fairytale narratives were annoying. They lent a particularly stagey feeling to the story. Who was Cadence telling this story to when she was forming this narrative? It felt more like a device than anything. Cadence herself was drawn very smartly, but those fairytale narratives interrupted her arc in my mind.

    I wonder, however, whether my dislike of this story could somewhat stem from my dislike of “tricks.” I don’t like them. I think they’re manipulative and more often than not highlight weaknesses in the writing.

    And I am glad you pointed out that the reader never learns why those four kids were called liars. That drove me nuts, because I thought I must have missed it after a certain point. Perhaps one could say the entire family was a collective lie, but that to me would be couched as reader’s analysis. The ending/resolution just got to me. It felt like a movie. I swore as the character wrapped things up that I felt like I had seen this before. I’m not convinced I haven’t. Alright. That’s it! Thanks haha. ; )

    • They all seemed rather remote and summed up in clever sentences rather than revealed subtly

      I really disliked the “bounce and snark” and “ambition and strong coffee” descriptions. A lot.

  3. “It felt like a movie. I swore as the character wrapped things up that I felt like I had seen this before.”
    =
    “Bruce Willis was dead the whole time!”

  4. I was really conflicted about this one, because I know so many people love it. And the writing, and the deftness with which things go unsaid and are carefully omitted, is very clever. But there are so many events that the twist undoes, that make no sense to me when I think about them, details like Grandad asking where “that young man was” because he wanted to lend Gat a book, Carrie saying that Johnny’s also awake in the middle of the night… Having the entire book be a figment of Cady’s imagination weakens it for me; having them actually be ghosts makes the entire story revolve around Cady in a way that makes her look even more selfish and privileged. It undoes her growth. It allows her a ridiculous degree of forgiveness, something that no one ever gets and that Cady certainly doesn’t deserve.

    And all of that built to a condemnation of Cady for being rich and thoughtless and stupid, and I wasn’t comfortable with that, either. I felt that as a reader, I was backed into a position where I could only feel one way about her character – because her mistakes were too big to invite compassion and she herself too removed to invite sympathy. And the fairy tales were a gimmick that underscored that. I mean, “If you want to live where people are not afraid of mice, you must give up living in palaces.” And the way every single one was about a king and his three daughters was so on-the-nose that I rolled my eyes in spots.

    So I ended up not liking this one very much, mostly because of the twist and the feeling that the author did everything possible to create a character who can be easily dismissed.

    I’m not quite sure how to tie this into the Printz criteria, because I think criteria essentially don’t exist – but in terms of characterization, the twist undoes that by calling every single conversation Cady had with anybody into question; in terms of plot, the twist undoes that, too, by confusing everything; the writing and the voice are good but the fairy tale segments are jarring in their lack of subtlety.

    Just my two cents! I’m excited to read everyone else’s opinions.

    • Having the entire book be a figment of Cady’s imagination weakens it for me; having them actually be ghosts makes the entire story revolve around Cady in a way that makes her look even more selfish and privileged. It undoes her growth. It allows her a ridiculous degree of forgiveness, something that no one ever gets and that Cady certainly doesn’t deserve.

      Ahhh, this is great. I’ve been struggling with how to say all of that and you did it in three sentences.

  5. I thought the thinness of the characterizations of the other Liars made sense – if they’re not around anymore, if all Cady has is her own memories of them, then it makes sense that her perceptions are of people who are thin, one-dimensional, stuck in a single moment in time rather than capable of growth and change.

    I actually thought that the book walks a thin line between condemning Cady and forgiving her really well. It’s impossible to atone for something like what happened, but what can you do? Spend your whole life trapped by self-loathing that ends up being just self-indulgence? If you’re going to live on, after something like that — what do you do? You endure. You feel the awfulness but you can’t live there forever.

    It’s the kind of book that’s really hard for me to like, even when I can see that it’s really well done, because you have to go back and say, what’s left of the book once you take away the shocking twist? Does it still work, as a book? I’m not sure that it does.

    The writing is so beautifully spare. That’s enough to get it close to the top of my list. But I really go back and forth on whether it’s a great book or just a book with a great gimmick.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      I agree completely about the thin characterization being deliberate. Bounce and snark, coffee — these thin descriptors are all Cady has left, and the rest of the Liars are stuck as her best approximation of two-year-old memories scaled up as she fantasizes they might maybe be.

  6. Beth really hit on a lot of what I didn’t like, particularly with the fairytale stuff. I wonder as well what’s left of the story after the twist. Much of the story seems to hinge on one single reveal. When reread, does it still hold up?

    Emily, I see what you mean about the characterizations coming across as deliberately thin, but on the other hand, wouldn’t her memories be more vital and vibrant in one sense, because she treasures those things? I think a case could be made either way, and because of that it seems to suggest to me that there isn’t a good way to say it was done by deliberate design rather than just a symptom of poor writing. I do agree that condemning Cady seems to be rather pointless. Enduring is all that can be done in such cases. I think it’s up to the reader to decide how Cady should proceed following her revelation, which is actually a great discussion topic about guilty and responsibility. Interesting.

  7. If I have the time I’ll reread LIARS because I also read it months and months ago.

    I loved the voice and language; and I loved how unsure I was about what most of Cady described because there were so many overlapping things going on. There was how child-Cady, then-Cady, and now-Cady viewed things; but then there was also now-Cady that wasn’t just an older Cady who sees things differently, but a Cady suffering physically and mentally.

    I’m not a fan of “gotcha” books because I think they don’t survive knowing or figuring out the gotcha — I am a fan of a good reveal, because reveals work no matter how many times you’ve read it or whether you’ve figured out the gotcha. To me, this worked even though for me, TV and film and books have taught me to pay attention to when and how characters do and don’t interact with others. So, here, yes — I figured out on the earlier side that “the liars” were the biggest lie Cady was telling herself. Or that they were pulling off the biggest lie to Cady, by returning to her for one last summer (I think the argument can be made either way: real ghosts, ghosts in her head.)

    To me, the bigger reveal was how much personal responsibility Cady had for what went down, and the consequences to that. I was expecting something big, yes — I wasn’t expecting that it was something Cady did. And especially since one of the areas I am interested in overall is how we treat and view such actions by teens — that’s what really got me wondering about this book, and the family dynamics, and how broken people were. And whether it could be fixed. And whether Cady was truly served by not facing any legal consequences, even juvenile court ones.

  8. It’s been a while since I read this, so I can’t remember where exactly it was in the story, but I figured out that the other 3 characters were dead pretty early on, and thus suspected that Cady had some level of involvement. At that point, I kept reading to see what the involvement would be, but I didn’t like the book and found the fairy tales tiresome. It’s interesting to read the thoughts of others, and I appreciate your experiences as readers, but I am really hoping this is not the eventual winner or an honor.

  9. I was blown away by this book. 100%

    Sure, a part of me was a bit apprehensive going into it. I’d completely bought into all the hype and hoopla surrounding it so that, by the time the book was finally–FINALLY!–in my hands I was positively salivating and falling over myself to begin reading. The last time that happened was with The Hunger Games, which I ended up being bitterly disappointed in (all that hype for THAT? It’s Lord of the Flies meets that Greek myth about the labyrinth and the Minotaur). HG wasn’t bad by any means. I was just expecting something… More? Different? So yeah… you can maybe understand why there was that little voice in my head warning, “Alissa, remember: The greater the excitement, the greater the possibility the book won’t live up to the hype.”

    Color me jaded.

    No longer.

    We Were Liars, for me, absolutely lived up to–no, surpassed–the hype. And it deserves every bit of acclaim it receives. I was pulled in by the mystery and E, Lockhart’s unique writing style. And the ending… Blew. Me. Away. I didn’t see it coming at all. I was expecting something a bit more typical soap opera, like Gat being the illegitimate child of one of the aunts or Cady getting pregnant by Gat and miscarrying or something or they all saw something they shouldn’t have seen. Maybe even something a little Sci-Fi. Nothing like the the actual reveal. It was like the first time I watched “The Sixth Sense”. It was, “What?!? No!” and “WT…?!?” and “!!!!!!!!!”. Literally knocked the breath out of me. I can’t remember the last time I reacted so powerfully to a book. Seldom does a book surprise me. Like Scooby-Doo, more often than not, I’ve unmasked the twist before the reveal. Not this time. E. Lockhart, you stumped me!

    And when I re-read it, picking up on the subtle little cues (Why is Cady the only one who interacts with The Liars?), my reaction didn’t change. Sure, I knew what would happen, but the way E. Lockhart crafted the story was so gorgeous it sucked me in all over again.

    I hope We Were Liars IS a contender (if not the winner) of this year’s Printz. Or Thumbs Up. Or Teen’s Top Ten. Or something. It certainly deserves to get credit where credit is due!

  10. I’m another person who really loved the experience of reading this book (many months ago!). I loved the voice and style. I knew there would be a twist, but I actively did not try to figure it out. I wanted to just let it all unfold and see how it felt…. and it felt pretty powerful. I think that emotion is what really stayed with me long past the actual plot.

    What really struck me in reading this very uncomfortable tale was the whole appearances vs. reality theme. Both sides of my family tree reach back into the mid-1600s in the New England colonies. We were not affluent by any means, but this family struck me as so regionally familiar in so many other ways. The isolation, both physical & emotional. The competition for approval & affection among siblings. The “heads in the sand” reaction to anything controversial or difficult. The importance of the veneer of the family be spotless and outwardly perfect. The emphasis on tradition. The pretense of perfection. The smile & nod attitude even when all chaos is breaking loose. Really, the whole family is made up of liars, not just Cady & her peers. So ultimately, which lies are the important ones?

  11. Karyn Silverman says:

    So, I left my reread response vague in the first place to see what others thought, but here was my experience. First, I didn’t actually mean to reread it yet. I wanted to reread the first few chapters to cement my sense of Cady’s voice and make sure I still agreed with my notes, but I was totally absorbed again and ended up reading right through to the end. And I sobbed just as much — the emotional wallop was very different, but still powerful.

    On the first read, I knew there was something — and while I wasn’t expecting Gat to be someone’s illegitimate child (Alissa, you win for best theories), I also didn’t see the specifics coming. And I too worried that it wouldn’t hold up past the gimmick, but if the first pass is about the discovery and Cadence’s journey, the second one is about the horror of seeing this family in disintegration. Taft saying Mirren read to him and that Cuddledown in haunted becomes a testament to the intensity of this grief. One of the twins (Bonnie?) is obsessed with the dead and contacting the dead, and that’s not a 14-year-old wannabe Goth, which is what Cadence seems to see it as — that’s her searching for a way, in this family where silence and a stiff upper lip is the way things are done, to talk about her big sister and her cousin and their friend and the pain she feels. The way the aunts all want Cadence to spend time with the Littles is about their desperate desire to rebuild the illusion of the perfect golden family. And every scene with Cady and the Liars becomes about projection and good-byes and the way she is so destroyed that she cannot even handle reality. It’s a sadder, more painful read but it definitely still works.

    Like Liz, I appreciate the way you don’t know if it’s a projection or if they are actual ghosts. I prefer ghosts and the idea not of forgiveness but of acceptance. Cady isn’t to blame, not alone; they all did this. She just happened to be the one who survived. I don’t think we’re meant to see this as a pass, although Beth, I do see where you’re coming from — she’s probably messed up for life physically and mentally. But we’re meant to understand that she can still have some kind of life and also that she recognizes how toxic her upbringing has been.

    Finally, of course the fairy tales are on the nose; these aren’t quite real tales (except for meat loves salt), they’re Cady’s retellings and imagined fairy tales, using a very common trope — the king’s three children — and they are her attempt to talk about things she’s not supposed to notice or mention.

    I don’t know that I’m ready to call this one, but so far it’s in my top five for the year (with the caveat that I am still reading around the clock).

  12. I think what you said in your first review – about how much of this book hinges on the reveal – is right on the money. I’ve loved every Lockhart book I’ve read – including those she’s written as Emily Jenkins – so I had many personal expectations for this one. And the writing is just what I’ve come to expect from her. But the reveal just so completely failed for me – I found it completely obvious from very early in the book (and I’m not someone who usually solves the mystery before the characters do) – so much so that my experience of the book was negatively impacted. But, if the reveal worked for you, combined with the prose that Lockhart always excels at, then I can see this being a contender for a different reader.

  13. There should be some caution when considering how a reread holds up for this and other books with wallop twists. Yes, there is certainly value in the making sure that all the pieces line up, and finding potential clues, and not having to wonder where it’s all heading. But there can never be the same experience as the first time. And I’ve often speculated just where in the criteria “holding up to multiple readings” falls, if at all.

    • TK, I think enjoyment plays a big part here. Did you enjoy the story just as much the second time (or third or fourth)–despite knowing what was happening? If you can answer that question, you have your answer.

  14. I’m late to the discussion and I agree with many of things said here already.

    I wasn’t a fan of this one. I felt like the hype and the buzz built it up too much and that the big reveal and twist ended up being a let down. I saw it coming very early on and I didn’t think it really stood out when it was revealed, because I knew it was coming. That made it less of a strong book for me-I had predicted it long before the main character had and that made her more frustrating and annoying to me as a reader.

    I also felt the characters were thin. Honestly, I felt more upset about the dogs that died than I did any of the Liars, which to me was a telling fact that I just didn’t care about anyone or care about Cady.

    I also agree with others said about the fairy tale elements-they just felt too gimmicky and too perfectly constructed like Beth said that I was rolling my eyes. I felt like they were trying too hard to get a message across and I wasn’t sure who exactly Cady was talking to.

    So much of this book relies on the twist and I wonder if it will stand up in discussions and the many re-reads the committee gives books.

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