We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Delacorte Press, 2014, 240 pages
There’s a genre of books — and I don’t know if there’s a name for these kinds of books — that I love dearly. I’ve been referring to them as the privileged-angsty-white(-school)-boy books and all the better if they have a peripheral first-person narrator. Books like The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard (review forthcoming!), The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and A Separate Peace by John Knowles all fall under this category. I sometimes throw The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald in there, too. There are themes like the human condition and nobility and all sorts of other great concepts that, from a literary perspective, are kind of reserved for the human beings as described in my hyphenated descriptor there.
Generally, women can’t be the stars of this books because, well, women problems (am I right?). By this, I mean women have problems that men do not and since men are the default in our society, these kinds of stories cannot be about women, though women do experience the troubles laid out in these books. Women, here, could just as easily be anyone who isn’t a privileged, (often) wealthy (or at least surrounded by people who are wealthy; I’ve found this genre will frequently put the main character at a disadvantage through a lack of wealth compared to their peers for a variety of literary reasons), probably-Christian, American (maybe British), white male identifying as a man. I absolutely own and recognize that this particular “genre” is not diverse. In fact, it’s exclusionary.
But I think that’s what I so enjoy about it. The wouldn’t it be nice for these grand existential problems to be the kinds of problems I encounter? And, yes, okay, many of these books end with murder or death or a lifetime doomed with isolation, substance abuse, what-have-you. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately (admittedly as part of some writing I’m in the process of planning), and I don’t know it’ll do anyone any good if I try to pin down why, exactly, I enjoy this genre-without-a-name so much, especially when it serves to reinforce existing power structures that are doing real damage to not only myself, but to friends who are less privileged than I due to race, class, ability, sexual orientation, and plenty of other markers I’m probably too privileged to even be aware of (and for that, I am sorry).
I’m digressing. There are a few books I’ve gotten my hands on that have a girl/woman main character and sit on the very edge of this group of books: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart. And that’s it.
I have read a minimum of 500 books (thanks, Goodreads) and these are the only two I can think of. A couple paragraphs ago, I explained why I think authors avoid women in this genre. But, clearly, it can be done. In fact, E. Lockhart not only does it in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, but she also tackles issues of privilege and equality in an eloquent, articulate, and digestible way. Did I mention her book is for young adults? Yeah.
So, needless to say, I loved The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks.
When I heard Lockhart had published a new book, We Were Liars, and I saw that it was once again about privilege as well as summer homes and the lofty wealthy, I was all over it.
Before I get further into this, I want to point out that the marketing for this book was a huge challenge because — and describing why, of course, is also a challenge, so forgive me for the vagueness — the end of the book refers to an event that happened in the past which changes the entire context for the book. So, the publishers had a really hard time figuring out how to get people interested in reading the book without revealing, really, anything about it in terms of plot and circumstances. They settled with a tagline that went along the lines of, “If anyone asks you how it ends: LIE.”
I liked We Were Liars. It wasn’t as good as The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, but it was good in its own right. I figured out the twist about two-thirds through the book, so if you’re looking for something really shocking, this isn’t it. We Were Liars absolutely took on the topics inherent with privilege that so many others gloss over, especially with the help of the character, Gat. But I have to admit, for all of the hype the book got especially with credit toward the twist, I felt the reveal took away from the weight of the book. It felt that, rather than being a component of the story — a piece that was just that, a piece of a whole — the backstory was the star with the rest of the content playing the chorus. In other words, it felt like Lockhart had the idea for the twist and built a rickety shack around it: a rickety shack around a golden fireplace. It just didn’t fit.
Part of what was so frustrating about this was the rickety shack would have well been a palace in other context. On the whole, the world, the characters, the language, the pacing — all of it was great on its own. I was so disappointed when the secret of the book turned out to smash it all, and not, I think, in the way Lockhart intended it to. I’m still working out how it is the reveal is so incongruent with the rest of the book. Though a bit predictable, the twist was interesting and, on its own, well done. I can’t wrap my head around why it feels like a decrepit fireplace in a golden palace while also feeling like a golden fireplace in a rickety shack.
Early on in the book, I tweeted at E. Lockhart, saying that my jaw was already on the floor after only twenty-five pages. And it was — at this point, I was going solely on how beautiful the book was; how it captured the world of old money and melodrama without feeling like a soap opera. The language of We Were Liars is spectacular. Though I had some trouble matching the language with the main character — that, too, didn’t quite fit to my liking — I savored it all the same. It’s a piece of art, but still a very separate thing from the plot and context and all.
Lockhart treats her teen characters as their age, which is to say she does not infantilize or condescend to them as many YA authors do. I’m so grateful to her for that. While at the time I was less-than-satisfied by fairy tale interludes that are sprinkled throughout the book, I see their worth and symbolism from a distance. I still felt some of it was over-the-top, though.
There’s no easy way to review We Were Liars. It’s not so much a book as a disjointed experience that you have to experience for yourself. It’s certainly worth the few hours it takes to read, but if you’ve been influenced by the hype, consider lowering your expectations a bit. You’ll enjoy it — and perhaps even understand the hype — much more.
❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤