'Family Of Liars' reveals secrets at the core of the Sinclair family
E. Lockhart's Family of Liars is a strange prequel to her New York Times bestseller We Were Liars.
The novel takes readers back in time to show them the secrets at the core of the Sinclair family and how some of the major events of We Were Liars were set in motion during the summer of 1987, but the narrative also works perfectly well as a standalone coming-of-age novel about grief, addiction, young love, and learning to navigate the world.
Family of Liars starts with Caroline Lennox Taft Sinclair — Carrie to almost everyone in her life — spending time in her kitchen with the ghost of her dead son Johnny. Johnny is curious about Carrie's past and asks her to tell him stories about the worst things she did when she was young, so Carrie tells him about the summer of 1987, her 17th summer, the summer she first "saw a ghost" and kissed a boy for the first time. As Carrie retells the events of that summer in Beechwood Island, a private island owned by her father and uncle, she reveals the dark secrets and deep flaws that exist at the heart of her seemingly perfect family.
Lockhart is a great storyteller with a knack for developing complex characters that feel deeply human. While this would be merely a strength in a different story, in Family of Liars it becomes the element that makes readers develop empathy for the characters and care about what happens. This is crucial because the Sinclair family isn't the kind of family most readers immediately feel a connection with. The Sinclairs inhabit a world that seems at times untouched by reality. They own an island with a housekeeper from Belarus, a groundskeeper, a boat, and a young au pair from Poland. They hold parties with decadent food and family games, the girls all go to expensive boarding schools, and they have dogs with names like Wharton and Reepicheep.
However, none of that keeps the darkness from creeping into their lives, especially for Carrie; her parents make her get surgery to fix her bite and weak jaw, her little sister Rosemary drowned when she was only 10, and then she got hooked on codeine pills — which she needed when her jaw surgery got infected — and eventually sleeping pills, which she stole from her father. The list of hidden truths and peccadilloes, as well as Carrie's endless grief-turned-haunting following the death of Rosemary, make her an engaging, unforgettable character whose voice is strong enough to carry the entire narrative.
Besides superb character development, there is a dark, supernatural angle that makes this an interesting novel with unexpected twists. The presence of this element, and the strength of Carrie's voice, becomes apparent early on as she spends time talking with the ghost of her dead son in the middle of the night:
"I let him drink whiskey because he's dead anyway. How's it going to hurt him? But often he wants hot cocoa instead. The ghost of Johnny likes to sit on the counter, banging his bare feet against the lower cabinets. He takes out the old Scrabble tiles and idly makes phrases on the countertop while we talk."
Throughout the novel, which is what Carrie is telling her dead son, she holds conversations and cuddles with Rosemary's ghost. However, it never feels like a creepy, supernatural event. Instead, the interactions, which inject into the story a healthy dose of magical realism, feel natural and full of sisterly love.
Another unexpected element that makes Family of Liars unique in terms of voice is Lockhart's tendency to suddenly switch from prose to poetry when you least expect it. Using line breaks and spacing, there are poems sprinkled throughout the novel, and they almost always come at times when something memorable or important is happening or just happened. This forces the reader to pay attention and read things differently. Carrie's thoughts after her first kiss are a perfect example:
"I have never been kissed before. It's like
diving into cold water, like
eating a raspberry, like
listening to a flute, and it's like
none of those things."
For readers familiar with We Were Liars, this novel will be like going back in time to revisit a place they know a lot about it. However, reading the first novel is not necessary and there are a few times in which Carrie talks about the mayhem that came later in life, like when she started taking sleeping pills on top of her codeine pills: "I do not know yet that it will take me some years and two stays in rehabilitation clinics to stop taking pills." Or that she'll develop a drinking problem. Or that she'll drop out of college because of her addiction.
Family of Liars is an atmospheric story that will welcome new and seasoned readers to the Sinclair family and show them that death, grief, mysteries, jealousy, and heartbreak that can hide at the core of wealth, beauty, and good intentions.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.