Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The Liars' Club

Reviews have been quite mixed about E. Lockhart's We Were Liars, and weirdly, I agree with all of them.  I agree that it's kind of hard to sympathize with the poor little rich girl narrator, and also that the story is poignant and heartbreaking.  I agree that the writing is gorgeous, and that the narrator's unreliability is done with a deft touch.  I agree that the "twist" is made too much The Thing about the book..

Actually, no.  I'm going to break entirely with the word on this book and say that there is no twist.  There's a reveal--a couple of reveals, actually, but the one that everyone's been calling the twist is, I would argue, quite clear from the narrative.  I definitely figured it out right away, and my feeling is that Lockhart intended me to, or at least wasn't hiding it.  (And I apologize to anyone who didn't see it coming.)

Because I'm not sure that I have coherent things to say about this, some points.

  • I read this book while on vacation at an arrive-by-boat getaway spot with an old friend, whose family has been coming to this retreat for years (and sometimes sniping at each other while there).  This element was kind of surreal, and I honestly couldn't tell you if my experience/understanding/visualizations about Big Generational Family Retreats colored how I saw Cady's life on the island.

  • Why were they the Liars?  There is NO indication why they were called that--she says that they always had that nickname, and it's crystal clear that the Sinclairs are all liars, that this is their family legacy.  But how did this group of teenagers get the name?  There is no hint, and that felt like a big hole to me, especially in a story where the persistence of images, of roles in a family, and of memory in shaping the present are all strong themes.

  • Johnny and Mirrin kind of get short shrift compared to Gat.  I sometimes felt like they were there to flesh out the quantity, the magnitude of the group, and to explain Gat's presence, and to keep this from being Just About Love.  But Gat is the most powerful presence in the group, by far.

And this next one is super-spoilery, but I think it's the thing most worth talking about here, and it's the reason it's a tough book to blog about.

  • I think the most interesting thing about the Tragedy is that it was entirely preventable.  So often, when overwhelming guilt is the narrator's problem, we have this long build up of why they feel guilty, and it ends up being that they didn't stop someone else from doing something, or that they contributed in a tiny way to something.  Essentially, it's the kind of guilt that a third party doesn't feel was justified, and we as the audience forgive our hero right away. 

    But this ISN'T.  Cady came up with an awful idea, got too drunk to do it properly, and then screwed it up in a horrifying way.  And while there's a little guilt to go around, it's mostly her fault.  I think the question of how someone lives with the fact that they are at fault in something terrible is so rarely addressed in fiction--probably because there's no good answer.  It's just a big ugliness that's nearly impossible to face.  It fits in with our moral ambiguity theme of earlier this year: how do you deal with these impossible questions?  

So, We Were Liars.  In the end, we're left with ugliness cleaning up after ugliness, and maybe finding some humanity underneath?  I think in the end, I could go back and forth about whether I liked the characters, or thought their growth was worth my time, or whether the reveals made sense or were kind of sloppy.  But I don't actually care about any of that, because this book was just beautiful--gorgeously written and full of so much love.  I don't mind that it's not perfect, because it's worth reading, just as it is.

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