Hannah is not a normal child and her mother, Beth, is very much aware of that fact. But she has trouble convincing her husband, who insists that Hannah is fine and Beth is exaggerating her troublesome behavior. But Beth knows the true. Hannah hurts her little brother, displays no human compassion or remorse, and appears to Beth to delight both in being cruel and driving a wedge between her parents. Beth narrates the events that transpired in the mid-1980’s.
Meanwhile, Clara describes her 2017 relationship with Luke. They’ve only been living together a few months when Luke does not come home one night and appears to have gone missing without a trace. Clara leans on Luke’s best friend, Mac, for support. As the two of them search frantically for Luke, frighteningly dangerous events occur.
Luke’s family members never speak of his older sister, Emily, who left many years ago and has never been heard from again. Luke’s brother, Tom, behaves in ways Clara finds highly suspicious and Luke’s aging parents are distraught. As the days go by with no word from Luke, Clara becomes increasingly desperate to find him.
With Mac’s help, Clara undertakes her own investigation into Luke’s disappearance. She discovers disturbing details about Luke’s family, as well as Luke’s past behavior. Then a woman claiming to be Emily agrees to meet with Clara, but only so long as Clara promises to keep the meeting a secret from Luke’s family. Clara eagerly proceeds with the meeting, hopeful that Emily will provide clues to Luke’s whereabouts.
Clara discovers that looks are deceiving and Luke’s family, appearing so happy and perfect on the surface, might be harboring dark secrets. When she stumbles upon a connection to an odd young woman named Hannah, she learns that those closest to us often have the most to hide.
Author Camilla Way relates that the impetus for The Lies We Told was her desire to “write about a female psychopath who stalks and kidnaps a man. I thought it’d be interesting to turn the usual woman-as-victim dynamic on its head.” But the idea for the book took form following a “conversation with some fellow mothers about whether certain behavior in kids is innate or learned. We all make jokes about how this child’s ‘a little monster,’ or that one’s ‘a born diva,’ but I wondered what it would feel like for it to gradually dawn on you that your child is a genuine sociopath – for that instinctive, unconditional love to slowly change to fear then horror.”
Way employs dueling narrations from Beth and Clara that eventually reveal precisely what transpired between Luke’s parents and Hannah’s so many years ago. Beth longed for a child and was thrilled when Hannah arrived. But her joy was short-lived because by the time Hannah was five years old, Beth knew something was very wrong with her daughter. Beth desctibes her observations of Hannah’s behavior: “I’d look into Hannah’s beautiful big brown eyes and I’d see nothing there. Intelligence, yes — I never feared for her intellect — but rarely emotion. I never felt anything from her. Though I lavished love upon her, it was as though it couldn’t reach her, slipping and sliding across the surface of her like water over oilskin.” Research cements what instinct and her nursing background have already told her: Hannah suffers from a severe personality disorder.
Meanwhile, Clara’s own determination to learn Luke’s whereabouts leads to a present-day showdown during which the truth is finally revealed. Way utilizes the two women’s voices and viewpoints during the two different time periods to maximum effect. She keeps readers theorizing as to what actually transpired more than 30 years ago, why Emily ran away from her family, and just how far Hannah will go to exact revenge for perceived wrongs.