We Were Liars is a short novel, perfect for any reader who wants a small pacy read and is prepared to slip into the skin of an impetuous American teenager. True to its YA nature, there is an impassioned, impossible love story, but it offers more than that. It’s also about what lies beneath the façade of the American dream epitomised by the glamorous and very rich Sinclair family.
Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family,
No one is a criminal.
No one is an addict.
No one is a failure.
Cady and the Sinclairs
The Sinclairs are small l liberal elites. They are invariably tall, good-looking and confident. Cadence or Cady, our 15-year-old narrator at the novel’s opening, says: “We are old-money Democrats. Our smiles are wide, our chins square and our tennis serves aggressive.” Cady has a quick wit, a big heart, and a wild story to tell, centred around her annual trips to the family’s private island, Beechwood. Our narrator has a flaw: she is, at least initially, blind to her privilege.
On the island, Cady connects to three others she calls collectively ‘The Liars’. Johny and Mirran are Sinclairs like herself; the eldest kids in the Sinclair clan, that they are white goes without saying, and that they are the heirs and heiresses of the family fortune does too. Then there is Gat. Or in full, Gatwick Matthew Patil, fast becoming Cady’s love interest. He’s an American-Indian (from India), whose political eye and courage to speak up, shines a light on the privilege that Cady has grown up with, and can’t see. He points out that the Sinclair kids don’t even know the names of their staff; people who have lived in their space, serving them loyally, all their lives.
Memory loss and migraine
As the plot progresses, Cady is struck by amnesia and migraine. She describes her migraines thus:
Cady’s combination of both amnesia and migraine, occurring towards the end of the book, is convincing and astute. We Were Liars not only pays attention to the impact of such conditions on performance and thinking, it shows how such states are often discounted and misunderstood by others. Just like the servants for the family, once Cady has memory loss, she is shunted to the margins by her Grandfather, literally sent out of sight to recover.
Voice and verve
Not expecting to become so engaged, I was seduced by this book—its voice, its verve, its drama, and its critique of class, privilege and racism.
As mentioned, the outsider character at the island’s annual gathering is Gat, who first turned up with his uncle who lives with a Sinclair aunt. Gat is the interloper. He is the catalyst that will start the family’s tumble from perfection and grace to ruin, image-wise at least. His presence, and difference in colour and socio-economic standing, highlights the Sinclairs’ prejudices, especially when he captures Cady’s heart and her Grandfather finds out. When Grandfather catches him and Cady kissing, Gat points out that the old man will not speak his name.
Naming is important in this book. One of the Sinclair dogs is called Prince Phillip. The houses names hark to old England castles and aristocracy. The word that is not spoken out loud, but played out in the family interactions, is racism.
The Sinclairs appear to be progressive, inclusive people; they appear to have accepted Gat into their family as one of their own for many years. It is only when Cady falls in love with him that the Sinclairs’ nascent racism is revealed. Some critics have claimed this theme is lost, or overshadowed by the dramatic fire plot twist of the book’s denouement. However, it is this racism and exclusivity that sets that event in motion and the family myth to crumble.
The Heathcliff factor
While Gat is no brooding Heathcliff, his relation to Cady has many elements that evoke the best of the Bronte sisters and Wuthering Heights specifically. Gat makes the comparison of himself to Heathcliff, a reference initially lost on Cady.
Interestingly, the ending prompts a gender reversal, with Cady thrust in Heathcliff’s role. Enough said lest I’m too much of a spoiler.
Bestseller twice over
We Were Liars hit the New York Bestseller chart on release in 2014, and again in 2020 after a teen book-tock post about it went viral. It won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult Fiction in 2014.