We Were Liars: Too Unbelievable For Fiction?

We Were LiarsE. Lockhart’s We Were Liars begins ominously: “Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family. No one is a criminal. No one is an addict. No one is a failure.” The Sinclairs are attractive, wealthy, and messed up. Seventeen-year-old Cadence Sinclair Eastman, the eldest grandchild of Tipper and Harris Sinclair, is giving away her belongings, one by one, except for her well-used library card. When she was 15, something terrible happened to her—and to her family—but she can’t remember it, and no one will tell her the truth.

Sadly, someone on the Internet under the guise of being a “book reviewer” told me what happened to Cadence (without a “spoiler alert”). Already knowing the twist—and feeling rather uncomfortable about it—I wouldn’t have read this novel had it not been the latest selection for Katie’s Fellowship of the Worms.* I decided to join in the read-along to assess how well Lockhart pulled off such a bold twist in the 200-odd pages between the terse “Welcome” and the tragic “Truth.”

It’s uncomfortable to see the deteriorating Sinclair family through the eyes of its emotionally wounded heir. Cadence’s sentences are short and full of pain and anger. It’s certainly an interesting read, but one that’s best for readers who won’t concentrate too carefully on the plot. Cadence’s “accident” just doesn’t add up. Would those kinds of physical injuries heal so quickly? Why wasn’t there a forensic exam? Where were the police? If the “accident” had happened as described, Harris Sinclair, Penny, and her sisters would know much more about what actually happened to Cadence, her cousins, and their friend than they do. The inadequate legal response to a catastrophic, potentially criminal incident reminds me of the absurdly half-hearted criminal investigation in Jennifer Miller’s The Year of the Gadfly, another young adult novel about privileged New Englanders.

Adding to its flaws: Lockhart’s plot could have been solved instantly if only Cadence had googled herself, which is surely among the first steps these days in any journey of self-discovery.

Still, I appreciated aspects of this novel, particularly its references to classic literature. Lockhart’s We Were Liars is most directly an homage to Shakespeare’s King Lear, a tragedy I remember only vaguely, but it also has strong parallels to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, which I re-read last January. The love of Cadence’s life, Gatwick Matthew Patil, is a modern version of Heathcliff, at least to Harris Sinclair. I nodded my head vigorously when Gat informs Cadence that Emily Brontë’s only novel is not a romance, as she has been led to believe, because “those people are awful to each other.”

On this blog, in An Unexpected Reaction to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, I referred to the classic as “a brutal story about hateful people,” one that was about “obsessive infatuation,” not love, prompting a healthy debate in the comments.** I am glad to have Gat on my side — he’s the only character I actually liked.

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*Have you read We Were Liars? If so, check out Katie’s blog, Words for Worms, to join in the discussion!

**My other two Wuthering Heights posts are: (1) Trying to Keep An Open Mind About Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights; and (2) Heathcliff: A Man or A Devil?

21 thoughts on “We Were Liars: Too Unbelievable For Fiction?

  1. Pingback: “Sinclair” Is The New “Smith” (Or So It Seems) | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  2. Literary Feline

    I so hate having a book spoiled for me, especially when it’s something I might not have seen coming otherwise. I often guess the outcome before I get there when reading, but that’s different. I’m sorry that happened to you.

    I love this post and your critique of the book. I have been on the fence about this one.

    A friend and I were talking just yesterday about how our take on the books often reflect back on the work we do, especially when a situation arises that we are well versed in because we deal with it first hand. Then any errors don’t just stand out, they glare at us.

    1. Thank you! I love the way you put this: “any errors don’t just stand out, they glare at us.” My practice area is different from the issue in this novel (or what should have been an issue in this novel!), but I’m familiar enough with criminal investigations to know that something isn’t right here.

  3. rivercityreading

    Though I definitely agree that there could be a plot hole with Cadence not Googling herself, I’m a little confused with the injuries healing quickly. The incident took place two summers before the major events in the novel, which seems like a decent time for injuries (other than the migraines) to have healed and, presumably, a police investigation to have taken place (though…I agree that legal battles could take much longer). I read this several months ago, so it’s possible I’m mis-remembering!

    1. Hi Shannon! Those are good questions.

      Regarding the physical injuries, I’m referring to a line in Chapter 80: “Her [physical wounds]* healed quickly but she exhibited selective amnesia regarding the events of the previous summer.” It doesn’t give a specific time frame for the healing, but “quickly” doesn’t sound right for the type of injury it was. I actually did research into a similar type of injury for something I’ve written. While Lockhart never indicated the severity of the injury, it’s very common for it to cause scarring that not only lasts more than two years, but may require skin grafts and other medical attention (especially if chemicals were involved). It’s too easy for Lockhart to just say it healed quickly.

      As for the criminal investigation, there was never any mention of police. If there had been an investigation, then Harris Sinclair and his daughters would have known more about Cadence’s involvement than they did (they merely had suspicions: “If Mummy thinks I am in any way at fault, she will never, ever ask me. I know she won’t. She doesn’t want to know.” Chap. 73). Forensic evidence would have refuted the “story” Harris supposedly believed–the cause of the accident wasn’t limited to the mudroom–and it would’ve given Penny more of a sense of what her daughter did. Maybe it’s just Cadence’s perspective that they don’t know the full truth, but again, it’s the easy way out for Lockhart to do that with the plot. There would be indications to Cadence of the truth. For example, criminal charges could take years to resolve. There would have been press attention (which would’ve been easy to find had Cadence ever googled herself).

      *I’ve taken out the specific type of injury from the quote because I don’t want to give it away! Of course, the rest of my explanation probably gives it away anyway. Oh well!

  4. My initial thought was the old saying, “the difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.” I guess with this book, we can change that to “the difference between traditionally published and self-published is that self-published books have to make sense.” If a book with that big of a conceptual hole had been self-published, the criticism would’ve been relentless, and industry supporterts would’ve held up as an example of how wonderful and useful traditional publishing is as a filter for readers.

    The point about the protagonist using Google is a good one. We all live in a different world today than we did a generation ago, and that’s particularly true of young people. You can’t have a story with anyone under the age of 30 where that person hasn’t exhausted the Internet trying to resolve whatever issue they have in their life, whether it’s investigating facts, learning about a medical condition, or whatever. It’s an integral part of their lives; they never ask themselves, “should I look this up online?” they just do it.

    1. “I guess with this book, we can change that to ‘the difference between traditionally published and self-published is that self-published books have to make sense.'”

      Sadly, I think you may be right. This novel is based on an interesting idea, but the plot is very weak. Readers seem to like it, though (4/5 stars and over 600 reviews on Amazon). Self-published books are held to a higher standard. Readers pay less for them, but expect them to be perfect.

      “You can’t have a story with anyone under the age of 30 where that person hasn’t exhausted the Internet trying to resolve whatever issue they have in their life.”

      Agreed! This is a Young Adult novel. I find it hard to believe that its intended audience would accept these types of holes. Cady has a laptop and sends email, but never googles herself. Weird.

  5. AMB, you are brilliant, as usual. It never occurred to me how completely bizarre it was that there wasn’t much of an investigation into the accident. And if Cadence was sending emails (as she clearly states she was) why in heaven’s name didn’t she Google herself?!

    1. Thanks, Katie! I’m trained to “issue spot.” I’m particularly good at recognizing situations that should’ve had a legal response. That’s what I do all day! 🙂

      Thanks for gathering the worms together!

  6. Reblogged this on DailyBooks.org and commented:
    The Misfortune of Knowing has a book review of We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. A.M.B. says that the book is in some ways a direct homage to King Lear and Wuthering Heights, but with more plot holes. Check out The Misfortune of Knowing.

    1. Thanks! That’s a tough call. I’m glad I read it because it’s an interesting premise, but I can’t say I highly recommend it. It just has so many holes. If you want to know the twist, you can easily find out by reading Katie’s post (linked in my footnotes). It contains spoilers–with the appropriate warnings–because it’s a reading group discussion.

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