Have you ever slept so hard that when the alarm clock or the telephone has managed to penetrate your slumber and prod you erect, you still find yourself stumbling through your morning rituals with one foot in reality and the other still in the dream world?
That feeling pervades much of the atmosphere of E. Lockhart’s bestselling novel “We Were Liars.” Partially because of her amnesia, and partially because of the drugs she is on for her continual headaches, the narrator, Cadence, tells her story like one emerging from a nightmare that she cannot quite remember, yet which is slowly becoming clearer, one memory at a time.
To envious outsiders, Cadence’s world might seem like a fairytale come to life. After all, her extended family has its own private island off the coast of Massachusetts, where members spend their summers basking in the privileged lifestyle afforded them by her grandparents. But as in all families there are tensions, petty jealousies, and long-harbored resentments, which, while kept carefully hidden from the outside world, somehow manage to gnaw at the cords that tie them together.
Still, for Cadence there is much to look forward to every year when the family retreats to their personal paradise, for that is the only time she can see the rest of the liars: an exclusive clique made up of Cadence, her cousins Johnny and Mirren, and Gat Patil, the nephew of her aunt’s long-term lover, Ed. The liars are all approximately the same age, and like similar groups that tend to form when numerous relatives or others congregate for several days or weeks in a temporary setting, they separate themselves from the rest, share secrets, and experience a closeness that only seems to thrive during the months they are together. It is the classic summer camp syndrome, where what feels like the strongest of bonds quickly weakens with geographic distance and yet somehow manages to flourish again the next year.
Yet, as mentioned earlier, there is trouble in paradise. Harris Sinclair, Cadence’s grandfather and proud patriarch of the clan, is in many ways a modern King Lear, a connection that Lockhart builds on throughout the novel. Like Lear he has three daughters whose future depends on his good will, and true to the nature of Shakespeare’s tragic hero, he also seeks to secure their sycophantic devotion to him through manipulation.
Battered from failed marriages, crumbling careers, and rapidly diminishing trust funds, the daughters succumb to this pressure and strive to keep daddy happy while jockeying for first place in his life after the death of their mother. In an effort to solidify their precarious positions and to secure their inheritances, Cadence’s mother and aunts endeavor to involve their own children into cajoling Harris, but the cousins for the most part try to resist these attempts.
There are also other monsters lurking in the fairytale’s shadows. Racial and social conflicts exist barely under the surface like hidden reefs, threatening any relationship that might dare to move beyond the established boundaries. Over the years Cadence has started to fall in love with Gat, but while he returns her feelings, he also struggles with them. He knows his Indian heritage and family’s lower social status has always cast him as inferior in the eyes of Harris who, while never overtly rude to the boy, has also never referred to him by his name. At one point Gat tries to awaken Cadence to the reality of how different their worlds are by pointing out that she herself doesn’t even know the names of the servants who cook and clean for them every summer.
As love begins to push its way up through rocky soil and the desperation of the mothers cause their drinking to increase, an accident happens during Cadence’s 15th summer that will change her life and the lives of her family forever. But what actually occurred? Cadence can’t remember, and no one else is willing to talk much about it. However, when she returns to the island after an absence of two years for four weeks of her 17th summer, the truth will slowly and painfully come to light.
While Lockhart’s writing is superb, even spellbinding, all of the characters except Cadence seem a bit one-dimensional; because their visible attributes are so intriguing, we are left by the end of the book slightly dissatisfied that we didn’t get to know them better. For Christians, there are also the typical landmines one can expect from a secular novel these days. For example, the characters struggle with believing in a God that can allow bad things to happen, they take His name in vain, and they periodically use strong language to emphasize their points. Following their role models, the teenage cousins also drink, and there are several sexual references. Cadence also has some violent visions and memories that might be disturbing to some readers.
Overall, though, this is a powerful story that transcends the standard teen fare to reach the level of literature. Lockhart’s narrative has the thematic strength and psychological underpinnings of a Shirley Jackson novel and even has a similar mood at times to Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.” Despite its worldview and content issues, it is definitely worth reading.
Image copyright Delacorte Press. Review copy obtained from Amazon.
John E. Roper, in addition to his role as a missionary/pastor/teacher in Africa, has written for USA Today, the Arizona Republic, the Daily Oklahoman, the US Review of Books, and more.