If you read the previous ‘On 3…’ you can skip this bit.
You know that feeling when you’re half way through a book, and you’re already sick of it but you have to finish it? No? Oh… yeah… erm… me either… I guess. Well, I’m trying to break that habit – which I don’t have – with popular fiction books I’ve not read. Yet.
So I’m trying something different. When submitting to agents, you have to hook them with three chapters. So, I’m going to review the following novel on three chapters – and no more. These reviews are a teaser of what’s yet to come within the narrative, the questions the novel sets before the reader, and whether I would continue to read or not.
And – as so much of my life is – this review will be interrupted and ‘corrected’ by my mum.
We Were Liars, E. Lockhart
Can I just say, I love a map. And a family tree. During my time studying Historical Fiction at Bath Spa University for my MA, I was told that including a family tree or a timeline was a ‘bit of a cop out’ as the story should world-build around the time you’re including for your story. But that the opening page is a map of Beechwood Island, with the building names and families in residence, and then the second page is the Sinclair family tree suggests a uniformity and quintessential nature to the world I’m about to travel through.
Which, of course, is perfectly in sync with the jarring opening sentences.
‘Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family. No one is a criminal. No one is an addict. No one is a failure.’
Why does that strike me as insincere?
Cadence Sinclair Eastman sounds like every over-dramatic, hormone ridden student having a bad day. She’s full of existential crises and an overwhelming desire to both stand out and stay hidden. She’s condescending about her aunt’s ‘stay at home’ position, whilst calling her own mum ‘mummy’, seems overtly disgusted by money whilst spending it from a comfortable position of ‘not bothering to understand’ where the money comes from. I don’t like her. She’s too much a poet, and as a narrator – less than reliable.
Mum: ‘I’m so glad the first three chapters are no more than 3.5 pages. The short, staccato sentences were clearly meant to give impact and drama. I was just irritated by them. What utter drivel.’
I feel like it’s a stylistic choice to develop the character as opposed to just ‘for the drama,’ but I’ll echo my point from earlier that she seems over-dramatic and hormone ridden. As condescending as that might sound. A lot of literary writers at the moment are dropping the drawn-out complex sentences for short, brusque responses to the situation of the story and the character’s immediate thought. And We Were Liars is – in my opinion – literary fiction. The conflict so far has been internalised. Her father has left. Her family is a mess but won’t admit it. But, the ‘bullet’ – which I didn’t realise was a metaphor at first – is in her chest. Not out in open play.
And if you think I’m kidding about the metaphor – I genuinely read the sentence
‘And then he pulled out a handgun and shot me in the chest’.
Twice with the response – Wait. What? Before realising she’d just had a break down at her dad driving away.
Mum: Oh. I read it three times and thought she’d actually been shot.
What? And then got up and gone shopping for furniture? With a chest wound?
Mum: That’s what she said. I was captured by the cover. I thought it was written for grown ups, a murder mystery and not a poetry-literary-teen-y bleurgh. It’s too deep.
And you say I’ve got a short attention span.
Mum: I just feel I was sold a pup. I thought it would be a grown up book for grown ups. But it was a sheep in wolf clothing.
Mum: The pretence to show the families as wealthy and clearly something to be proud of, or jealous depending on how you view Americans, was pathetic. It was like name dropping celebrities to gain kudos. Martha’s Vineyard, Ivy League colleges and famous cities were through out to prove a point, but instead made a pathetic attempt at a lazy list of places where the rich supposedly hang out.
They are obvious sign posts – but – signposting works. If I were to write a story about someone from Portsmouth University meeting someone from St Andrews – you’d immediately have expectations about both people just from the signposted uni alone. (To be clear, I don’t have a preference on either, but there’s a reason Kate Middleton met her prince charming at St Andrews and not Portsmouth.) And if this novel was marketed for teenagers (which makes sense because the character is 17, so her target audience would be 15-ish) then the signposts don’t need to be clever or intricate. They need to be clear. These people are clearly filthy rich.
Mum: I won’t be reading any further. Waste of space on the bookshelf.
I never thought I’d find myself defending We Were Liars. I guess a part of me remembers that it was one of my favourite students (I know it’s bad form to admit I had favourites but hey, what are you going to do?) that recommended the book to me in the first place. And whilst the language is both flowery and brief, over-emotional and stark, I do think there’s a place for it and I can see why so many young people enjoy it.
I am intrigued to find out what the ‘accident’ is because you don’t find out in the first three chapters. And I fully expect the family to unravel and reveal themselves to be less than worthy of the time the narrator spends thinking and talking about them. Maybe We Were Liars is worth the rest of my afternoon.
Only one way to find out.