Author: E. Lockhart
Narrator: Ariadne Meyers
BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Cadence and Mirren talk about Mirren’s bikini.
Content Warnings: Memory loss, hallucinations, mentions of self-harm (fantasised), suicidal ideation, migraines, near-drowning incident, arson, dissociation, grief, racism
My friend Hannah read We Were Liars back in October and loved it so much that she couldn’t stop recommending it to me, and was desperate for me to read it so that she could talk about it with me. Hannah and I do generally (with some significant exceptions) have very similar taste in books. Sadly, I did not get along as well with the book as Hannah did, and whilst there were certain aspects I really enjoyed (the social commentary on privilege and racism, and the much lauded big twist) I found the build-up of the mystery too long and slow for such a short book and the characters fell very flat to me. Here is a short synopsis of the book (though be warned, it deliberately tells you nothing):
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.
So once again, we’ll start with my usual biggest problem, yes, we’re back with our old friend PACING. This book is very short, less than 300 pages long, and yet it felt like it took a long time before it really got my attention, I think I was well into Part 3/Part 4 before I really started caring about what was going on. It’s very much slice of life for a lot of the book, which isn’t really something I’m that interested in. The plot is really kind of thin when you boil it down: girl tries to figure out what caused her head injury and why she can’t remember what happened two years ago, and the real action doesn’t happen till the last two parts.
I didn’t love the narrator of this one either, I found her voice kind of grating and she wasn’t the most enjoyable person to listen to for almost seven hours.
The characters felt a little flat, I honestly couldn’t tell you much more than surface level details about any of them. I mean it was probably partly due to the fact that we’re seeing everything from Cadence’s POV and her style of narration is very observational, we’re told a lot about the different members of her family but we never really get to see the evidence of her observations. I’m sure part of this is Cadence being an unreliable narrator, but most of it does seem like poor character development on the author’s part: after all Cadence feels as thinly developed as all the other characters.
I did like that the chapters were very short, though I did think there could have been fewer chapters, there’s 85 chapters in this book and some are only a few minutes long, so they could have easily been combined into one without making any of the chapters ridiculously long. The ending also felt kind of dragged out, so I definitely think Part 5 could have lost a few chapters with little impact on the overall story.
The mystery was probably the best part of this book, though the build-up was slower than it needed to be, it was intriguing, and Lockhart did a good job of building the suspense throughout. You always know that it’s a good mystery when you have a lot of theories about what happened and I had A LOT. I won’t share them as sharing my wrong guesses might be spoilery as to what’s right, but let’s just say I was far off base with all of them.
I did find the writing somewhat frustrating at times. Lockhart has a tendency to use very overwrought metaphors, and it felt sometimes like she was trying too hard to be “lyrical” in her writing. Having said that, the fractured sentences as a reflection of Cadence’s state of mind was a good idea, and I liked the fairytales she made up, it was an interesting device to foreshadow what was going to happen in the story.
The dialogue also felt rather stilted to me, which was a shame, as dialogue is usually my favourite part of a book.
I found Cadence as a character really quite irritating, she’s far too whiny about her privilege for me to really feel sorry for her, like your family has THEIR OWN ISLAND, the things you whine about are things most people can’t even dream of having! It also really wound me up that she called her Mum “Mummy” at 17, I mean maybe this is a super rich person thing but I don’t know any 17 year olds who still call their mum, “Mummy”.
Gat, Cadence’s love interest, also annoyed me. He’s kind of a pompous asshole, I mean obviously I understood and emphasized with him about the Sinclairs being racist twats, particularly Harris, but he did keep coming back to the island every year and benefitting from the Sinclairs’ privilege, and he was only a cousin (and not even a blood-related one) so he probably didn’t have to if he’d decided he didn’t want to. I also couldn’t get over that his full name, Gatwick, is the name of a London airport!
So all of this considered, it’s hardly a surprise when I say that I wasn’t a big fan of Cadence and Gat’s romance. It’s your classic cringey teen romance, and I’m sure some of that is me being a 25 year old and not a 17 year old now, but even when I was 17, I found the whole “I’m so obsessed, I can’t stop thinking about him” really cringeworthy, it’s just never been my thing.
The Liars are meant to be this super tight group, but I honestly didn’t feel that dynamic from them? It felt like Cadence was just telling us that they were, but again there was no evidence for that, they barely spoke to each other outside of the summers together and even when they were together, they felt kind of stilted and formal with each other, they didn’t seem like a bunch of cousins having fun.
I did find the social commentary of the book quite interesting, I appreciated what the author explored in terms of white privilege, money & racism. The fact that Cadence’s aunt chooses her inheritance over her partner because her father doesn’t like that he’s Indian, was particularly galling, yet not surprising given that all the mothers in that family are obsessed with money. It’s definitely a good exploration of the whole money doesn’t mean happiness thing and how excessive wealth can destroy a family.
The representation obviously isn’t great, everyone except Gat and his uncle are white, but then that’s the whole point of the book.
Unfortunately I can’t really talk about the most important part of the book, which is the twist, but there are a few hopefully vague and non-spoilery things I can say about how I felt about that particular aspect. First off, I expected to feel more? I got the sense that the twist was meant to have a big emotional impact, but because I felt very disconnected from all the characters, it didn’t have the desired effect. I was more impressed with how she pulled off the twist, than feeling the emotional impact of it. I also felt that the book would have left more emotional impact if it had ended at the end of Chapter 84 rather than having Chapter 85, which felt like an unnecessary epilogue.
I was so glad that the map and the family tree were included in the audiobook, they were really helpful to refer back to as there are a lot of family members and house names to remember throughout the book.
Overall, this book was quite the disappointment, though the much lauded twist did live up to expectations, and there was some interesting social commentary, the characters and most of the plot fell fairly flat to me, and I’ve definitely read much more exciting mysteries. The twist was actually the saving grace of this book as I’d be rating it much lower without it.
My Rating: 3/5
My next review will be of my second November audiobook, the sequel to A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, A Psalm of Storms and Silence. I’m down to only two books left on my review backlog, so I’ll definitely have caught up by the end of 2021!