Yesterday, I talked about my thoughts on holiday reads as a concept, listed the books I’d read on my recent honeymoon to Bali and reviewed the first book on the list, The Luminaries, a big, heavy read I’d picked up because I felt I should and ended up loving.
Today’s read is at the other end of the scale. I’d heard it was about a rich American family staying on their sunny holiday island, and it sounded like a perfect bit of light relief. Some of the descriptions of the island and the happier times the characters spent there fitted the bill, but as the book went on, it got both darker and less interesting. Lots of people seem to have loved this, but for me, it was a bit of a failure, both as a book and as a choice of holiday read. I finished it, sat on our veranda sipping a glass of wine in the summery warmth – and was left feeling rather depressed and very cheated. On the plus side, if I’d read it anywhere else, I’d probably have felt rather jealous of the characters (at least in the early stages of the book). Instead, I had the rather unique reading experience of thinking that my Bali villa beat their Cape Cod mansion hands down!
WE WERE LIARS – 3 STARS
A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from National Book Award finalist and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart.
And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.
When I started this book, I knew only two things about it. Firstly, that it focussed on a rich family on a summer holiday. Secondly, that it had a major twist. Beyond this, thanks to what seemed to be a deliberate policy by both publishers and reviewers, its content was a bit of a mystery. I wasn’t even entirely sure of the genre or of what age group it was aimed at. Still, that bit of information I had sounded promising. I usually enjoy reading about upper class lives (do I even need to clarify that on this blog?), I was looking for a beach read so the summery theme appealed, and above all, I love a well-executed twist.
While I hate spoilers, I don’t think it’s necessary to be quite as cautious as some reviewers have been. I think it’s fair to say that it’s YA, that it’s mostly about families and growing up, but that teenage romance plays a large role.
The seventeen year old narrator, Cadence, is one of seven grandchildren of an incredibly rich WASPy-type, who owns a private island off Cape Cod. Every year since she was a child, the whole family has spent the summer on the island, having a seemingly idyllic time. The family are outwardly perfect. Not only rich, but tall, blonde, intelligent, good-looking and sporty. The are also quite obsessed with keeping up appearances, maintaining a stiff upper lip in the face of emotional upheaval and keen to perpetrate their own mythology of gilded perfection. From the first page, however, it becomes clear that, inevitably, there are problems behind the facade.
When she was fifteen, the narrator had the usual summer of spending time with her beloved cousins, as well as starting an intense relationship with Gat, the Asian best friend of one of the cousins, and a frequent visitor to the island since they were all children. Then, she had some sort of swimming accident, which has left her with debilitating migraines, little interest in her old life, and little memory of that summer. Most of the action focusses on the summer when Cadence is seventeen. Back on the island for the first time since the accident and convinced that there are things people aren’t telling her, she tries to piece together what happened two years before, while trying to rebuild her relationship with Gat and her friendship with her cousins, and deal with the interesting dynamics of the rest of the family.
Some people don’t like to know that a twist is coming, but in this case, I was very glad I did. I started off really enjoying the book, mainly because the brutally honest prose style caught my attention. And throughout, there were passages that were really clever and that caught my imagination. “We believe in outdoor exercise. We believe that time heals. We believe, although we will not say so explicitly, in prescription drugs and the cocktail hour.” I also enjoyed the world-building. The island and the family dynamics felt very well-realised and have stuck in my memory. However, I was bored and mildly irritated by the time I made it halfway through the book. At that point, I was only really continuing to read because I wanted to know what the twist was going to be.
It was difficult not to feel irritated by Cadence. Despite some bits of clever writing, at times, listening to her bare her soul felt a bit like reading over a particularly pretentious and over-emotional section of a seventeen-year old’s diary (and believe me, if I ever wanted to do that, I’ve got plenty of my own raw material locked away!). The trouble was, she got so emotional over relatively small things (a boy she likes having a girlfriend, being “forced” to go on a trip to Europe with her father instead of back to the island when she was sixteen) that I found it difficult to feel much sympathy for her when genuinely bad things happened, like the after-effects of her accident. Her response seemed the same whenever anything upsetting happened, regardless of the magnitude – unleash the “shot through the heart” and “bleeding to death” metaphors. And the only thing more irritating than listening to the over-privileged narrator’s first world problems was listening to her sanctimonious love interest calling her out on it.
The other problem was that for most of the book, relatively little happened. It was mostly just Cadence and her family spending uneventful days on the beach and in the beachhouses – again, the effect was a bit like reading someone’s day-to-day diary. I think part of the problem was that I couldn’t get really emotionally invested in the key relationship. As a cynical 28 year old, I can’t help but think that a relationship between two fifteen or seventeen year olds is probably not going to last forever. I read a lot of YA/NA, and usually I manage to push these thoughts away and buy into the love story, but for some reason (probably the narrator’s whiny tone) I couldn’t do it here.
Finally, there were the interludes in which Cadence talks about her family using the language and imagery of fairytales, “once upon a time there was a king who had three beautiful daughters.” In part, it was quite clever and fun, but they were a bit overdone and started to add to the general vibe I was getting of pretentious teenager who mythologises her life.
And so to the twist. Firstly, it genuinely caught me by surprise despite my best efforts to guess it in advance, and it made me reconsider everything that had gone before. On the other hand, I found it pretty hard to reconcile with the rest of the plot, and sort of felt that for one “oh my god, are you kidding me?” moment, the author had undermined much of the point of the story.
Overall, this is a well-written novel, but I enjoyed the prose much more than the plot and characters. It’s not a bad beach read and it does have a surprising twist, but it ultimately didn’t quite work for me. It frustrated me to the extent that I was tempted to give it two stars, but when there are so many awful books out there, that seemed a bit unfair on a book that does have a few flashes of brilliance, so I’ve gone for a grudging three.
Tomorrow, it’s time for a review of my final read of the holiday (and one that several people have begged me to read): Outlander. Because nothing puts you in that tropical island mood faster than reading out eighteenth century Scotland…