Sunday, March 15, 2015

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

This is a story about a girl whose privileged life is turned upside down by an unspeakable tragedy.

Cadence (Cady) Eastman lives with her mother, Penny, and their dogs in a house in Burlington, Vermont. The year before her fifteenth summer, Cady's father left  her mother for another woman. Cady and her mother are part of the fabulously wealthy Sinclair family of Boston, headed by her grandparents, Harris and Tipper Sinclair. Harris and Tipper have three beautiful, tall, blonde daughters, Penny - who is Cady's mother, Bess Sheffield and Carrie Dennis.

Every summer Harris and Tipper along with their daughters and their families would travel to the family's private island, Beechwood Island, where Harris had built homes for each of his daughters. Penny and Cady lived at Windemere, the Sheffields at Cuddledown and the Dennises at Red Gate. Harris and Tipper resided at the largest home, Clairmont with its family portraits, expensive artwork.

The older cousins, Cadence Eastman, Johnny Dennis, Mirren Sheffield along with Gatwick Patil were eventually nicknamed the Four Liars by their aunts. Cadence, Mirren and Johnny were cousins, their mothers - Penny Eastman, Bess Sheffield and Carrie Dennis respectively.

For eight summers, three of the cousins who were closest in age, Cady Eastman, Johnny Dennis and Mirren Sheffield hung out together on Beechwood Island. During summer eight, Aunt Carrie (Dennis) arrived on Beechwood with Johnny and baby Will and her new partner, Ed, a dark skinned man of Indian heritage. Her marriage to her husband has broken down and she was now divorced. Ed brought along his nephew, Gat, who immediately seemed to fit in with the three cousins. Gat and Johnny grew close and Gat began coming to Beechwood every summer after that. From this point on the three cousins and Gat became known as the Liars.

When Cadence's father left, Cady was heartbroken. After the break-up, her mother told Cadence to ignore her feelings to pretend like nothing had happened. They proceeded to redecorate the house, throw out anything her father left behind and retreat to Beechwood Island. That summer was also different because Cady's grandmother, Tipper Sinclair had died eight months earlier and Granddad was struggling. As with the divorce, Cady's mother refused to allow her to mourn the loss of her beloved grandmother.  "She made me act normal. Because I was. Because I could. She told me to breathe and sit up."

However, Cady was very broken over the loss of these two people from her life. Gat comforted Cady and tried to get her to talk about what had happened " as if talking about something could make it better. As if wounds needed attention." That summer Cady found herself forming a deepening friendship with Gat that began to blossom into a first love. While her cousins Johnny and Mirren did their usual swimming and snorkeling and minding the "littles", Gat and Cady spent time together. Until one night Cady apparently went swimming alone, was found in her underwear on the beach by her aunts and was taken to a hospital on Martha's Vineyard. Cady remembered nothing about what happened that night.

Back home in Burlington, Vermont, after the accident, Cady wrote Gat and then Johnny but got no response from either. She began experiencing terrible migraines and blackouts six weeks after her accident. In the year after her accident, Cady missed classes and eventually failed her junior year. She tried calling both Mirren and Johnny but was unable to get an answer. During the next summer, Cady went to Europe with her father. Since Beechwood doesn't have cell reception, Cady sent Johnny and Mirren emails which also are ignored.

After the trip to Europe, Cady mails her cousins each something she owns; Mirren an old Barbie doll and Johnny a striped scarf. Cady only remembers certain things from the summer of the accident and when she asks her mother, she tells Cady that she keeps telling her the truth but that she keeps forgetting what she's been told. The doctors now think it's better that Cady remember on her own.

For summer seventeen her father plans to take her to Australia and New Zealand, but Cady wants to return to Beechwood. She wants to see Mirren and Johnny. She wants to remember the accident and to know why Gat disappeared.  Her parents eventually decide that she will go to Beechwood for four weeks and then spend the rest of the summer with her father.

In what will be her first trip back to Beechwood Island since her accident, Cady can't wait to catch up with the Liars. But the memories Cady uncovers will be more devastating that she could ever have imagined.

Discussion

We Were Liars is an amazing story with a truly heart-wrenching conclusion. Although Lockhart gives her readers clues along the way, the twist at the end is shocking and unbearable to the reader. But the truth, when faced by Cady, allows her to begin the path to healing.

At the center of the story is the dysfunctional Sinclair family with its wealth, its concern for a carefully crafted public image of beauty and strength and its inability to confront failure, death and conflict. Cady describes the Sinclairs as "athletic, tall, and handsome" and as "old-money Democrats" with "wide smiles, square chins.." The three daughters, Cady's mother and her aunts are tall and blond. Appearance is everything to the Sinclair family and especially so to Cady's mother, Penny who does not allow her daughter to express any emotional pain. "It doesn't matter if divorce shreds the muscles of our hears so that they will hardly beat without a struggle. It doesn't matter if trust-fund money is running out....We are Sinclairs. No one is needy. No one is wrong." Later on Cady describes "the beautiful Sinclair family" as believing in outdoor exercise, prescription drugs and cocktail hour. "We do not believe in displays of distress. Our upper lips are stiff,..."

When Cady arrives on Beechwood during Summer Seventeen and she sees that the beautiful maple tree with the swing is gone she feels immensely sad. Her mother's reaction, even after all Cady has been through is one that does not acknowledge in any way what Cady is feeling. She is to pretend all is well. "Be normal now," she whispers. "Right now."..."Don't cause a scene," whispers Mummy. "Breathe and sit up." I do what she asks as soon as I am able, just as I have always done."

The three sisters, Penny, Carrie and Bess have failed marriages and are struggling financially. Their aging father, the patriarch of the family, has a vast fortune to leave to them. But the three sisters are grasping and manipulative. Their fighting and back-biting begins to take a toll on the older grandchildren, Cady, Johnny and Mirren as they are drawn into the feud between the three sisters. They decide they've had enough and it is this decision the sets up the terrible tragedy which befalls the Sinclair family.

One of the strengths of this novel is the exquisite descriptive writing that allows the reader to deeply feel what Cady's pain. For example when talking about her father leaving Lockhart uses an extended metaphor to portray the depth of Cady's pain.
"Then he pulled out a handgun and shot me in the chest. I was standing on the lawn and I fell. The bullet hole opened wide and my heart rolled out of my rib cage and down into a flower bed. Blood gushed rhythmically from my open wound,
then from my eyes,
my ears,
my mouth.
It tasted like salt and failure. The bright red shame of being unloved soaked on the grass in front of our house...My heart spasmed among the peonies like a trout."

Later on when Gat talks about Gran's death, Cady describes her reaction in a way that metaphorically compares her to slitting her wrists:
"Everytime Gat said these things, so casual and truthful, so oblivious -- my veins opened. My wrists split. I bled down my palms. I went light-headed....When blood dripped on my bare feet or poured over the book I was reading, he was kind. He wrapped my wrists in soft white gauze..."

Only Gat allows acknowledges Cady's pain and allows her to express what she feels. He also attempts to make the Sinclairs confront the frayed areas that are common to all families but which the Sinclairs habitually ignore. For example, summer Fifteen, when Gran was gone, Gat makes a comment about Tipper and how he misses her. Instead of acknowledging their own loss, Johnny attempts to cover up what Gat has said. It is this willingness to acknowledge the unseen difficult parts of life, whether it be death of a beloved grandmother or poverty in India that makes Gat so special to Cady and yet as she says "a stranger, even after all those years." "He asked about Dad and about Gran-- as if talking about something could make it better. As if wounds needed attention."

The novel's story is told from the perspective of Cady who, because of her amnesia, will be gradually seen to be an unreliable narrator. Her narration is broken and at times disjointed, reflecting her fragile state of mind; first dwelling on the Sinclair family, then her father, then "her Gat", the boy she loves, then life on Beechwood and back to the elder Sinclairs. Overall the novel is divided into four parts. The backstory is provided by flashbacks in Part One Welcome where Cady sets the tone and also provides readers with an understanding of the family structure and how the Sinclair family function.To help with this, Emily Lockhart has included a map of Beechwood Island as well as a Sinclair family tree. Part Two Vermont tells of Cady's attempts to recover her memory and her struggles after her accident. Part Three Summer Seventeen relates her return to Beechwood and what happens that summer. Lockhart gives subtle hints at what is really going on; although Taft, Mirren's younger brother called to tell Cady they are already at  Beechwood, the Liars do not meet her at the dock when she arrives, Taft is afraid of the noises in Cuddledown which he believes in haunted and so his family abandons their home to stay with Granddad at the new Clairmont home, the Liars have Cuddledown to themselves and they never show up for meals at Clairmont. Gradually Cady begins to remember events from that summer. Part Four Look, A Fire reveals the truth about that summer and how the family conflicts led to the unspeakable tragedy.

We Were Liars
is a brilliant novel with a shocking truth revealed at the end. Emily Lockhart has written a "must read" novel for teens. The author had many well published authors comment on the early drafts of the novel including Sarah Mlynowksi, Justine Larbalestier, Lauren Myracle, Scott Westerfeld and Robin Wasserman. The result: a beautifully crafted story that readers will remember for some time to come.

Book Details:
We Were Liars by Emily Lockhart
New York: Delacorte Press      2013
227 pp.

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