"We Were Liars" is a Gothic tale of failed romance in an entrenched East Coast family still enslaved to the rigid WASP codes.
A National Book Award finalist, E. Lockhart shares the canniness, cynicism and correct eye for minute social customs with the "Gossip Girl" novels (which isn't a way of calling the novel lightweight, since the early "Gossip Girl" books often served up wicked good social satire). But she is almost exclusively preoccupied with the dark side of that world, and her novel has clear and deliberate parallels with John Cheever, "King Lear" and "Wuthering Heights."
A private island off the coast of Massachusetts, Beechwood, is the summer home to the Sinclairs. ("Our smiles are wide, our chins square, and our tennis serves aggressive.") There is Granddad, the entitled patriarch, with his three daughters and grandchildren, all uneasily competing over their possible inheritance. And there is Gat Patil, a dark, brooding foundling with smoldering good looks — "skin deep brown, hair black and waving" — who threatens to overturn the social order.
The Liars of the title refer to the three eldest Sinclair grandchildren — Johnny, Mirren and Cadence — and Gat, who arrives on Beechwood the summer the children all turn 8.
By the time the Liars hit adolescence, Cady starts to look at Gat "like he was mine. Like he was my particular person," though Gat's affection for Raquel, a black-clad modern dancer back home in Manhattan, leaves it an open question whether she is his exclusive person. When Cady and Gat fall into desperate, ill-fated love, he sends her quirky notes ("In a profound, symbolic gesture, I am giving you this bar of Vosges.... You can eat it, or just sit next to it and feel superior") and shakes up her political views.
Cady transforms her passion for Gat into a kind of revolutionary zeal, in which her family becomes the oppressive overlords who must be overthrown by any means necessary.
"If you want to live where people are not afraid of mice," she says, "you must give up living in palaces."
The summer ends with Cady waking up on the beach in a camisole and underwear, for reasons she can't explain, which leads to her banishment from Beechwood for the next season. Two summers later she returns, with her golden hair dyed black, mysterious migraines and a penchant for pharmaceuticals. ("My boyfriend is named Percocet," she says.)
Cady and Gat fall right back into it, though this time Gat knows he's Heathcliff, come to storm Granddad's castle, and says so explicitly: "I've betrayed him by seducing his Catherine, his Cadence. And my penance is to become the monster he saw in me."
Plot-wise, this novel relies upon an explosive surprise ending. But philosophically it's a classic story of decaying aristocracy and the way that privilege can often hamstring more than help.
The Sinclair girls, Cady's mother and aunts, were raised like American princesses, "known throughout Boston, Harvard Yard, and Martha's Vineyard for their cashmere cardigans and grand parties," "made for princes and Ivy League schools, ivory statues and majestic houses," and raised to believe their birthright — and sole purpose — to raise a passel of "bright blond grandchildren and funny blond dogs."
But Cady sees them for what they are — three divorcees, a former assistant at a magazine, a failed owner of a jewelry boutique and her own Mummy, "a dog breeder who dropped out of Bryn Mawr," each and every one of them now deep into middle age and still living off Daddy's trust fund.
"They had the best educations, a thousand chances, a thousand connections, and still they'd ended up unable to support themselves."
Beechwood may belong to the Sinclairs, but this novel belongs to the mice who burn down the palace.
Benfer is a writer who lives in New York.
We Were Liars
Delcacorte Press: 240 pp., $17.99