Before I write this book note, I have to make a confession: I generally dislike books that are about wealthy people.
This feels like a confession to me because it also nearly feels like a prejudice. Like I might immediately decide I don't like a person because he or she is rich. It's not dislike, though...it is distrust. There, I said it: I don't trust rich people. It's not pretty, but I cannot write my response to this book without sharing that flaw of mine.
I understand the impulse to read books about wealthy people. It's a way of stepping into their lives and sort-of experiencing what that might feel like—to do all sorts of Fabulous Things. But my own opinions about the wealthy are too ingrained in my response that I can't enter into that fiction anymore. The entire time I'm reading, I'm thinking about how that would never happen in my life. (Whatever fabulous thing the "that" refers to.)
I know how people (usually us non-wealthy people) like to say that money doesn't buy happiness, and I suppose to a certain extent that's true. But really, it's too vague, and it depends on what you think happiness is. If happiness is only trips to exotic locations, and lots of pretty clothes, and big houses, and a summer home and expensive cars and the best schools, then yes: money can buy that. If you think happiness is only an inner sense of seeing the capacity for goodness or rightness or peacefulness or tranquility, then happiness is something you bring to whatever situation you find yourself in (poverty or wealth included). Money can't buy that.
But I confess: some of the things that money has bought me have made me feel happiness. Obviously I don't do Fabulous...well, ever. But I felt a specific sort of happiness in, say, Italy when I sat on the roof of my hotel room with my sister. I feel a little jolt of happiness when I wear the silver bead necklace I bought in Mexico this summer (scrimped and saved for, in fact, because I knew it would be expensive to get just what I wanted, and it was, but I bought it anyway and probably I still feel a little bit guilty). I imagine I'd feel an intense amount of happiness if I ever managed to have one of my longest-held wishes, which is a cabin in the woods by a lake.
But I also feel happiness in simple things that don't require much wealth. Reading a library book. Walking underneath threes next to the river. Sitting in the grass talking to my kids.
Maybe it's not so much that money doesn't buy happiness as easiness. Pick a bad thing, nearly any imaginable bad thing, and sure: money won't inure you to cancer, divorce, Alzheimer's, depression, random violence, miserable teenagers, birth defects, infertility, loneliness, disappointment, unemployment, discouragement, ugly family dynamics, or any other troubling thing you can think of. But it generally makes those things easier to cope with. What if, for example, we had been wealthy enough to have my dad in a better care center than the almost-squalid one where he lived out the last years of his life? He still would've suffered from dementia. But at least it would've smelled better, and he would have received better care, and all of us would maybe feel less guilt. My mom wouldn't have worried so much during those years about how she would pay for the care he needed, which would mean her health wouldn't have been as stressed.
Or, consider a friend of a friend, who is fairly wealthy. She struggles with depression quite a bit, and when things get especially rough and she is in a dark place, her husband takes her to Hawaii. Does it make the depression easier to deal with when you are sitting on a private beach on Maui? I don't know, but I confess: when I am in a dark place, I wish I could find out.
All of which is a long segue to expose you to my hard feelings toward the wealthy so as to introduce you to a central fact of E. Lockhart's book We Were Liars: It's about wealthy people. And not just well-to-do, but extravagantly, old-American, owns-multiple-homes-with-hired-help wealthy. The Sinclair family, specifically, denizens of the east coast who arrive every summer at their private island off the coast of Martha's Vineyard. The grandparents had three daughters, and they and their families spend the entire summer at Beechwood Island, in houses named ridiculous things like "Windemere" and "Cuddledown."
The three oldest grandchildren, Cadence, Johnny, and Mirren, are inseparable during the summers. When they are eight, Johnny's mother (who has divorced her husband) brings along her new boyfriend and his nephew, the unforgivably non-white, non-wealthy Gat. He becomes an essential part of their little group; when he arrives, the four of them become the Liars.
Told from Cady's perspective, the story first describes their idyllic, golden summers, and then it crashes into the summer 15, when Cady and Gat fell in love and then an accident of some sort left her with painful headaches and not much memory of what happened to cause her to wake up, half-drowned and nearly naked, on a beach in the middle of the night.
Another confession: I should have trusted E. Lockhart more than I did. Because while this is a book about wealthy people, and all the Fabulous Things they do with their lives, it isn't a book that's mean to immerse you in the Wealthy Way of Living. It is, in fact, intensely aware of the wealth within it. Instead, it strives to point out how unbelievably lucky they are, and how they take it all for granted, and how it twists their way of thinking. How insular and completely unreal their realities are.
Central to the story is the grandfather's inability to state how he will divide his assets when he has died. Perhaps he'll just will everything over to Yale. He's power hungry and plays his three daughters against each other, all while putting on the "don't we have a lovely family" facade. But he also has a point: why should he pass along his fortune to his three daughters who've never really tried to live their own, independent lives but have instead mostly lived on their trust funds?
Plus, it's twisty and dark and has an entirely believable romance, and self-realization and bad choices and irredeemable characters who you still love anyway. It has a twist at the end that I figured out but then, I accidentally read the last page and sort of ruined it for myself, so I'm not sure if it's easy to figure out otherwise.
But what really made me able to enjoy this, despite all the wealth and the Fabulous Things was the writing style. When Cady feels something strongly, the structure (literally—the words on the page) starts to break apart, and I like that. I like the edgy style and how it feels to be inside of Cady's head. I especially liked the description of her headaches.
So, I confess: I am glad I put my prejudice aside and read We were Liars.
I just hope you'll all forgive me for my feelings about wealthy people.