Seven Ways We Lie
One of the fun things you can do while reading Riley Redgate’s new YA novel Seven Ways We Lie is to try to match up each of her seven narrators with the seven deadly sins, as the book’s cover, with its seven nametags–one for each of the deadly sins–invites you to do. And yet if you work too hard at that, you’ll find that not one of the characters fits comfortably inside a “sin” designation, but is defined by that sin for only moments of his/her life. Claire, for example, has a moment when she is defined almost entirely by wrath, while her prevailing sin tends to be envy. And even saying that about her goes too far—these are high school-aged characters! They change in big, important ways from day to day! The one thing you can know about high-school-aged people is that they are going to keep changing quickly, so it’s always a mistake to try to label them or pin them down. (Still, it’s fun, so I’ll eventually put my character/sin matches in the comments in the hopes of starting some argument.)
I read Seven Ways We Lie because it’s by a Kenyon student who is managing to publish a novel and graduate from college in the same spring. Since she’s a very young author, her characterizations of high school students ring true, and since she’s a voracious reader and a writer who has worked on lots of revisions, her use of multiple points of view works well—the characters are distinct, and their perspectives comment on each others’ and build well.
We’re first introduced to Olivia Scott, whose point of view thereafter seems to be the default main one. She is involved with all the other characters, while some of them—most notably, her younger sister Kat—are not a part of the story any of the other characters tell. Olivia’s introduction might make you inclined to think that she represents the deadly sin of Lust, but as she keeps trying to tell Claire, it’s not true. The plot of the novel turns on which of these students is having an affair with a teacher at the high school, and we know it’s not Olivia, because we see the first assembly about it through her eyes, and she has no idea who it could be.
Next is Kat Scott, who is outstanding in the high school play and wants to be left alone, because, as she says, “whenever someone breaks my privacy, my head fills with panic, panic, panic. I lose my thoughts in white noise and fuzz. A short, sizzling fuse. And what comes out of my mouth is always angry bullshit.” Despite this, though, it would be unfair to say she represents wrath. As her story unfolds, in fact, it’s clear to see that in the few months we get to know her, her defining sin is sloth.
Third comes Matt Jackson, who has a crush on Olivia and does nothing about it or anything else except spend his days getting high.
Fourth we get Juniper’s point of view, which is interesting because her voice is always represented in verse.
Olivia gets a second chapter before we’re even introduced to the next three characters in the novel—first Valentine, then Claire, and finally Lucas. By the time we read Valentine’s chapter, we think we know it all. Valentine prides himself on not being like all the other high school students, saying things like “I thought we were all aware that the vast majority of high school relationships are fleeting and meaningless, but apparently not.” He has identified the girl whose voice he heard proclaiming her love for a teacher. He doesn’t know her name yet, so we don’t know who it is, but he definitely knows it all.
Which makes it fun to see him so wrong about Lucas in one of his next chapters, thinking about the kid who sells drugs so he can keep up with a rich and now largely-imaginary middle school crowd, “this kid is going to go through life and get everything handed to him on a silver platter.” Eventually Valentine and Lucas become friends, which allows Valentine to finally admit to someone that he is “bad at telling when people are lying.”
Another reason I tend to see Olivia as the main character is because she says and thinks things that a reader like me may be anticipating, like: “If it’s only been a week and a half since the assembly, and they’re already dragging the teachers in for questioning, they’ll probably be planting bugs in our cars over the Thanksgiving break.” She also describes herself as “five foot ten,” which is awkwardly tall for a high school girl.
And in the end, Olivia is the character who we get to see change. Rather than letting herself be ruled by the immensity of her wrath–“I’ve felt my share of anger. There are some kinds you can’t hold in your body. Some types burst out of your every pore at once, and you feel yourself expanding and twisting and turning into something that isn’t human. You feel hot waves of rage punching their way out of your skin.”—she learns to share it and let it go.
Olivia gets the last chapter, the last word, gets to show us the last scene and remind us, even as we are seeing it, that “we are always moving forward….We are hurtling through our lives.”
The characters in this novel spend it hurtling from one “sin” to another, and they are each learning how to move away from the one that could be most destructive. Isn’t that what we all most hope to learn, at any age? Like Valentine, I always need to keep moving away from the sin of pride. Which “sin” would be most destructive to you?