Thursday, March 6, 2014
When I Was One-and-Twenty
BY A. E. HOUSMAN
When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
“Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.”
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.
When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
“The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
’Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.”
And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.
When I was sixteen, the world was absolute. I would always have the same friends. Nothing would ever be as important to me as going out with my friends TONIGHT (and no tomorrow is not the same, Mother, the world revolves around right now!) I would always love the same things, and feel the same way, and there was no point in telling me anything different. I understood the cosmos at 16; surely I had seen it all.
As I grew up, I experienced a lot - love, marriage, death, loss, birth, joy, angst, betrayal, humility. We all do, right? Experience equals learning and learning comes with growing. It's all a beautiful cyclical process, and while I certainly do not understand the cosmos at all, I do think that this process is part of what it all means. I am in my 40's now, and I know only one thing with absolute certainty: there is no such thing as certainty.
E.L. Lockhart's newest book We Were Liars is, in a way, about experience. It is also about being 15, and knowing the cosmos as we only can during our early years. It is about absolutes, and the knowledge that comes when absolutes are challenged and lost. It is a book for teens, but it is also a book for adults.
As Shakespeare said in King Lear, “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.” It is important to bring Shakespeare and old man Lear into this because to me, this book was very much a retelling of King Lear: an aging King rules over a vast, wealthy kingdom. He has three daughters who all want his kingdom. They fight, there is death, and loss. Experience reveals what once was absolute is seldom ever certain. The liars are Cadence, Mirren, Johnny and Gat, all Sinclairs except for Gat. The Sinclairs are old money, and own their own island just off of Martha's Vineyard. Granddad has three daugthers, who are the mothers of Cadence, Mirren, and Johnny. Gat is an extra, an outsider, as un-WASPish as they come. Grandmother Sinclair dies; three daughters vie for their father's attention, his money, his favor. Tempers rage, jealousies emerge, tragedy ensues.
As a narrator, Cadence is unreliable, and emotional. I was initially put off by her dramatic voice, but I realized how true it was for a teenage girl whose ideas are absolute: She will always love Gat. Her family will always be the same. She will do whatever it takes. Half-way through the book, the story changes. At first we are living with the Sinclairs, lazing on the beaches, living in one of the four houses on the island, saying only what each should, and never what we feel. It is summer 15 for the Liars - a seemingly endless repetition of rituals for the four teens who have never known change.
Then, there is an accident. Cadence is unsure, forgetting what happened. She is sheltered by her mother, and for a year, does not return to the island for the summer. She suffers migraines, and sends emails to her beloved Liars, only to be ignored. Why won't they talk to her? How did Gat forget their love? What was the accident that left Cadence so alone and in pain?
In summer 17, she returns to the island. Everything is different. All is flux. The Liars stay in Cuddledown, one of the four houses; Aunt Carrie walks the beaches at night. Granddad's beautiful old Victorian is gone, replaced by a glass and metal house that is not a home. Slowly, truth comes back to Cadence as she remembers what happened during summer 15. The climax is a quiet storm, a flash of light that reveals to Cadence the darkness of her youthful existence. The end of the book is full of uncertainties, lacks absolutes, but promises growth, endurance and sunlight.
I was breathless from the climax to the ending of this sweetly cruel book. Experience changes us all, growth leads to wisdom. Just wait for it to come.
“The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”
― William Shakespeare, King Lear