Caroline Lenox Taft “Carrie” Sinclair is the eldest of four daughters. Her prestigious old-money family, the Sinclairs, spend their summers on their private east coast island. As a family, they follow certain rules: “We keep a stiff upper lip. We make the best of things. We look toward the future.” This does not change when the youngest sister, Rosemary, drowns.
The summer after, seventeen-year-old Carrie goes back to the island where she sees her lost sister. However, Rosemary’s ghost is not the only surprise the summer will bring.
Newly confident from surgery that has left her with a chin that is “set forward” and an addiction to painkillers, Carrie is more than ready for love. Carrie discovers that her cousin Yardley has brought along three boys. One of the boys, Pfeff, captures Carrie’s attention right away. Irresistible and unpredictable, Pfeff changes everything for Carrie. A summer of passion, long-buried secrets, betrayal, and terrible mistakes has only just begun.
In Family of Liars, Carrie is the narrator, who is vividly fleshed out. The story is framed as Carrie telling it to the ghost of her son, Johnny, who died in a fire in We Were Liars. Carrie admits that she is unreliable, so the reader is kept on their toes and will be questioning things until the full truth is revealed. For a portion of the book, readers will feel sympathetic towards Carrie because she begins her story amid a loss, and she spends time reminiscing over the long-ago loss of her sister. By the end, Carrie is not exactly likable, but she is interesting, and the reader will have a good grasp of who she is.
Unfortunately, the story has several flaws. First, most of the other characters feel flat. There are so many of them, and some exit the story for long periods and reappear unceremoniously. The large cast of characters will force the reader to pay close attention to who’s who. In addition, certain plotlines feel unnecessary. In particular, the haunting that Carrie experiences does little for the story aside from showcasing her relationship with her deceased sister. The reader might expect a twist or revelation regarding Rosemary’s death, but there is none to be found.
Despite its flaws, Family of Liars is still gripping enough to forgive most of the book’s shortcomings. The pacing has little twists and turns occurring throughout the story rather than a slow burn to a revelation at the end. The book can be understood without having read its predecessor, but it should be noted that the famous twist of We Were Liars is spoiled on the first page of Family of Liars. If a reader intends to read both books, We Were Liars should be read first.
Family of Liars is nevertheless a gripping read that fans of We Were Liars are sure to enjoy. Lockhart’s writing style and storytelling ability are captivating and easy to get sucked into. Readers will not find it hard to get invested in the complicated Sinclair family.
- Carrie recalls her teenage years and fantasizing about kissing, at one point saying, “I longed for love, and I had a pretty urgent interest in sex.”
- Carrie remarks that her sister Penny has “kissed too many people to count.”
- When Pfeff is changing, he playfully calls out for the others not to come in and look at his “weenie.” When one of his friends says nobody would be interested in a weenie like his, Pfeff retorts, “It’s a perfectly normal weenie. A good weenie, even.”
- While swimming with the boys for the first time, Carrie thinks “the nerves in my fingertips cry out to touch someone.”
- When Carrie’s cousin’s parents get a divorce, the cousin tries to ignore evidence that her dad had “girlfriends, or hookers, even.”
- Carrie sees her cousin and her boyfriend passionately kissing. She was “pressing him against the house with her hand up his shirt.” She then invites him up to her room.
- Shortly after meeting, Carrie and Pfeff become romantically involved. Pfeff kisses her and slides his hand “up [her] waist to [her] chest.”
- Pfeff reconnects with a girl from his past and spends several hours with her. A friend speculates to Carrie that he spent the afternoon “‘boning that girl.’”
- After kissing one night, it is implied that Carrie and Pfeff have sex. They go to “his room in Goose cottage. [They] take off [their clothes]. . . . [their] skin salty, [their] breath uneven.”
- After their first sexual encounter, Carrie and Pfeff struggle to keep their hands off each other. At one point, they are kissing in the ocean and Pfeff takes off her bikini top and “presses his chest up against [her] underwater.”
- Carrie catches Penny “kissing Pfeff.”
- Pfeff begins “forcing himself on [Penny]” while they are “messing around.”
- Carrie briefly mentions “reveling in sex” during the summer when she was nineteen.
- Carrie remarks that Rosemary would have been reading books and “folding down the pages on the sexual bits.”
- Rosemary drowns in the ocean, presumably “knocked down by a wave and caught in an undertow.”
- Carrie recalls the original Brother’s Grimm tale of Cinderella, which involves the two stepsisters mutilating their own feet, “one cuts off her big toe. The other slices off the back of her heel.”
- In a Brother’s Grimm story called Mr. Fox, the titular character brings home the dead body of a woman and cuts her hand off. At the end of the story, two men “cut [Mr. Fox] into a thousand pieces.”
- When Pfeff tries to assault Penny, Bess kills Pfeff by “[bashing] his head with a board.” The three sisters cover up the murder by dumping his body far out in the ocean.
- Near the end of the book, Carrie reveals that she was the one who killed Pfeff in a blind rage. She “brought [the board] down over and over,” not knowing if it was Penny or Pfeff she was hitting. Bess witnesses this, and it turns out that Pfeff was attempting to assault Penny, so both sisters believe Carrie was acting out to defend her. The scene is described over a page.
- The ghost of Rosemary reveals she keeps coming back to haunt Beechwood because she’s worried Carrie will kill herself, or as Carrie puts it, that “I would cut my wrists or drown my own unworthy self, then worried I would kill myself with pills.”
Drugs and Alcohol
- Carrie’s parents smoke cigarettes one time.
- After surgery, Carrie took several medications and painkillers and became addicted to codeine. She describes her teenager self as “an athlete and a narcotics addict.”
- Penny steals a bottle of wine from the cellar and she and her sisters, all underaged, drink it on the dock.
- At seventeen, Carrie steals Halcion sleeping pills from her father and takes one out of curiosity. She develops a habit and notes that in the future, “it will take me some years and two stays in rehabilitation clinics to stop taking pills.”
- As an adult, Carrie struggles with alcoholism.
- While walking to her room, Carrie sees Penny and her friend passed out with “an empty bottle of whiskey on the floor.” Carrie wakes them and gives them Tylenol.
- Pfeff and Major say that they are “high” on one occasion and they admit that they often are.
- Fourteen-year-old Bess is drunk on whiskey when Pfeff is killed.
- All the teenagers drink frequently.
- Adults are described as drinking on a few occasions. On one occasion they allow the teenagers to drink with them, and Carrie gets fairly drunk.
- Bess remarks that Penny had “three beers in an hour.”
- After dumping Pfeff’s body, the sisters get drunk on whiskey.
- The word ass is said a couple of times.
- The word bastard is said once.
- Penny calls Pfeff a “fucking rapist.”
- The entire story is framed as an adult Carrie telling it to the ghost of her son, Johnny.
- The sisters believe they hear a voice one night, and Penny speculates that it could be the ghost of their youngest sister, Rosemary.
- Early on, Carrie begins seeing and interacting with the ghost of Rosemary. She describes her as “solid, not ghostly at all.”
- The ghost of Rosemary tells Carrie that she tried to visit her mother but she turned away from her. Their mother indirectly confirms this later in the book when she says, “one night, I thought I saw Rosemary… she looked like she had crawled up from the sea.” She dismissed the vision as a figment of her imagination.
- Carrie recalls a Brother’s Grimm story called The Stolen Pennies, which centers around bringing the ghost of a young child to rest.
- Carrie sees Pfeff’s ghost on the beach. He apologizes for the trouble he’s caused and swims out into the ocean after she tells him to leave.
- Rosemary keeps visiting Carrie summer after summer until Carrie tells her she doesn’t need to worry about her anymore. Rosemary’s spirit leads Carrie to the attic where she leaps from the window and vanishes, presumably at peace.
- Bess says, “I kind of pray to Rosemary. Like she’s an angel or something.”