What happens on the Island stays on the Island. Except when what happens on the Island is a fictional story, rendered from the extraordinary imagination of author E. Lockhart. In this case, what happens on the Island — shocking events infused with young love and layers of surprises and betrayals — is ours to soak up.
“Family of Liars” by E. Lockhart (Random House), currently No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller’s list for young adult fiction, is a prequel to Lockhart’s bestselling “We Were Liars.” Both books are set on the fictional Beechwood Island, which is a short motorboat ride from Edgartown, and both are filled with the salt-dusted secrets of a small island.
The Sinclair family, with the strong-jawed stoicism of old money, “ugly money,” bought Beechwood Island in 1926, and have built and rebuilt on it since then. “Family of Liars” (the prequel) is the story of what happened the summer after 10-year-old Rosemary Sinclair drowned, the summer of 16-year-old Caroline (“Carrie”) Lennox Taft Sinclair’s first kiss, the summer of betrayal, and the summer that Carrie — well, you’ll see. While it isn’t necessary to have read “We Were Liars” as a starter course to “Family of Liars,” the book is pretty much the definition of a good beach read, and since we’re surrounded by beaches, why not read them in the order they were written?
“Family of Liars” is Carrie’s story. She is now an adult reflecting back. She has decided she owes the truth to her dead son’s ghost (this is not a spoiler) after he asks her, “What’s the worst thing you did? Come on, spill it … The absolute worst thing you ever did, back then.”
But truth is not something the Sinclairs do well, as Carrie admits: “I have been a liar all my life, you see. It’s not uncommon in our family.”
If you have already read “We Were Liars,” you, of course, know this. The explosive and unexpected ending of “We Were Liars” turned the book into the sensation it became. Along with Lockhart’s ability to twist and turn a story in unexpected directions and probe into the dark crevices, her prose is poetic and full of little gifts. Reading it is like walking the beach and finding a perfect piece of blue beach glass, and then walking on and finding — well, try to guess.
Lockhart wrote in a recent email exchange that she hadn’t originally planned on writing a sequel: “‘We Were Liars’ came out in 2014, and I had no idea of writing a sequel or prequel or anything for a long time — but the book became incredibly popular in 2020 (and it is, still), thanks to wonderful, creative videos made by TikTok users. I began considering going back to my fictional Beechwood Island, and ended up feeling I could write the most surprising and satisfying story by making it a prequel.”
She added, “‘We Were Liars’ either makes people weep copiously and then reread the novel seven times, or weep copiously and throw the book across the room. The challenge was writing a book that would make people feel something as big as that, but in a fresh, surprising way.”
Since both books are so much more than their surprises, she accomplishes this task beautifully. As an NPR reviewer wrote, “‘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.”
Lockhart first came to the Vineyard with her mother around 1970. A few years after their visit, her grandparents bought land in Chilmark and built a house, and Lockhart started spending summers on the Island. She now sometimes rents the neighbor’s house, which she allows for a “family reunion compound — a true luxury that builds our family bonds in a very special way.”
And while Beechwood is fictional, the Vineyard is featured in several scenes of the book, including a scene that leads to one of the major plot twists.
But for those interested in literary Vineyard sightseeing, the book delivers. The first location on the tour is Fourth of July in Edgartown.
“When the four of us were little, my parents would take us to Edgartown each Fourth of July,” writes Lockhart. “We’d get deep-fried clams with tartar sauce in paper containers, and then buy lemonade from a stand in front of the Old Whaling Church.”
However, instead of hopping over to one of the Elizabeth Islands, Lockhart conjures up Beechwood, explaining, “Beechwood is a privately owned island with only four homes on it. Isolation is useful when you are writing a thriller! You can make very bad things happen when the police are a long boat ride away. But I also wanted a chance to render some of the things I love about the Vineyard in my book — Murdick’s Fudge, the Edgartown bookshop, and so on.”
Portions of both books were written on the Island, and the “extras” in the back of the “We Were Liars” paperback edition were written here. “I remember what chair I was sitting in,” she said.
E. Lockhart will be on a panel about prequels and sequels at Islanders Write on Sunday, July 31. For more information, visit islanderswrite.com.