Distinguished, self-regarding, and unbending in their insistence on normalcy, the beautiful Sinclairs, as Cadence Sinclair Eastman calls her mother’s old-line family, are so wealthy they have their own island off the New England coast. Patriarch Harris Sinclair has even built separate homes for each of his three daughters on the island, where the entire family gathers in summer. But there’s trouble in paradise at the opening of National Book Award finalist and Printz honoree E. Lockhart’s shattering yet ultimately hopeful YA novel We Were Liars, as Cady struggles with amnesia and blinding headaches after a mysterious accident on the island two summers ago. And neither family nor reader will ever be the same.
Part of the pleasure here is piecing together with Cady what happened to her, which adds suspense to a tale rich in character and moral conundrum while presenting a challenge for the author. “I wanted to write a good amnesia book with a past to reveal, so you’re always operating on two levels,” explained Lockhart in a phone interview. With Cady excluded from family activities by her pain, medicated numbness, and memory gaps, she finds her sense of self and self-confidence cracking. “Most teenagers experience feeling unsure, underestimated, not fully part of anything, and furious,” explains Lockhart, so while Cady’s situation is heightened and specific, “it’s a way to dramatize the universal.”
As the novel unfolds, moving between Cady’s past summers and unstable present, Harris and his daughters squabble unsettlingly about the inheritance, even dragging penny-bright grandchildren Cady, Johnny, and Mirren and friend Gat into the battle—with awful consequences. But Lockhart doesn’t see her work as a cautionary tale. “I try to write things that are open to discussion and multiple interpretations, without one morality,” she says, adding that here she also “wanted to write a book worthy of a reread.” To that end, she showed her work-in-progress to writer friends to see whether it was eliciting the response she wanted. And what did she want? “An emotional reaction that felt justified”—which it surely does.
If the island represents the classic summer idyll, with the teenage protagonists so removed from their everyday lives that they can risk experimenting with new roles and relationships, it’s also a place where the Sinclair mythologies can be upheld. The Sinclairs lie to themselves and to others about their specialness as the perfect American family, but ugly realities emerge as their dream world crumbles. The ugliness comes partly from the relentless fact of social stratification, but there’s more.
“In The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks,” says Lockhart, “I was trying to write pretty openly about American privilege and the problems of our collective fantasy of the American dream and of a certain kind of wealth and education. But I didn’t really write about race.” Race isn’t a defining factor in We Were Liars, but it adds important nuance to Lockhart’s dead-on discussion of social hierarchy. Gat Patil, the nephew of a boyfriend daughter Carrie brings to the island to play with her son, Johnny, is regarded uncomfortably by Harris Sinclair and his wife, Tipper. Cady adores him, but their relationship is fraught, nurtured by their closed summer world yet shut off from the possibility of anything beyond.
Despite Cady’s aching, heartbreaking uncovering of the truth about her accident and its consequences, she can proclaim, “I endure” in a final passage that circles back to the opening. The novel didn’t initially end that way, but novelist John Green recommended the change. “I hadn’t seen it, but it felt more like closure,” declares Lockhart. “It was a blessing.” As is the novel itself.—Barbara Hoffert
Lockhart’s We Were Liars took the No. 1 spot in May LibraryReads.—Ed.