Saturday, July 19, 2014

E. Lockhart's dazzling "We Were Liars" doesn't disappoint

My first foray into E. Lockhart's work was with the Printz Honoree, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, a story about a girl navigating the tricky terrain of her male-dominated, classist boarding school.  It was an excellent example of Lockhart's skill at developing a compelling protagonist (one of the great female leads of the last 15 years, in my opinion), incorporating thoughtful themes, and taking big storytelling risks.  What appealed to me the most, however, was its boarding school setting.  There's something about the idea of a boarding school that allows great young adult storytelling possibility, and many of my favorite books of all time -- Looking For Alaska, Harry Potter, etc. -- make use of them as a setting.

Her new novel, the mysterious We Were Liars, tells the tale of the Sinclairs, a rich family who spends each summer together on a private island near Cape Cod.  The story's told from the perspective of Cadence, the oldest grandchild in the family, and the main focus is on her and her cousins Johnny and Mirren, along with family friend Gat.  Because they're all a few months apart in age, they've formed a closed bond (the rest of the family calls them the "Liars"), even though they only see each other during the summer.  In a way, We Were Liars adapts elements from the boarding school narrative to a non-boarding school setting.  It's got teenagers left to their own devices, since even though their parents and grandparents also live spend the summer with them, the island is so big that the four Liars generally just hang out with each other and nobody else.  It's also got a contained location, but instead of a boarding school, the island is the setting where all the action takes place.  Location is so important that there's even a map of the island, which gives you the layout of all the different manors and their spatial relation to one another, at the beginning of the book.

There's no denying that We Were Liars gets off to a slow start.  Because there is so much history involved with the Sinclair family, whose ranks stretch past a dozen, the beginning chapters have to deal with a hefty helping of exposition.  The timeline skips around too: since the Liars only see each other over the summer, the story elides over many months to get back to the period they spend together.  It's an understandable move, but one that makes opening chapters woefully bereft.  None of the novel's many characters are able to make much of a mark, since those early stages get swallowed up in the budding infatuation between Cadence and Gat.  It's pretty standard stuff too, as far as teen romance goes.  Eventually, it begins to seem like the book is just about privileged white people and their boring problems.

Things don't really settle down and become intriguing until the "Summer Seventeen" section, where the story finally slows down.  The four Liars come into sharp focus and become interesting characters (all with unique voices), a welcome change from the beginning of the novel.  Lockhart once again proves that she's adept at writing fascinating, complex female characters, because Mirren and Cadence particularly shine.  You can see much of Frankie Landau Banks's DNA in Cadence, whose fiery, no-nonsense mindset makes her interesting to follow as she sorts through the mystery of what's going on.  Mirren, on the other hand, has an aloof personality that masks a delightful, biting wit.  Most of the novel's best lines come from her mouth.

By the time story starts ramping up, it becomes very clear that Lockhart is interested in interrogating the very same kind of privilege that I complained about in the first few parts of the novel.  It's hard to express the joys of We Were Liars without spoiling the plot, but it's best to go into the book knowing as little as possible.  With that being said, the final act of the book brings everything together in a way that's breathlessly paced, shocking, and emotionally rich.  With We Were Liars, E. Lockhart has crafted an intelligent, haunting novel that will linger in consciences long after the last page is turned.

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