One of Us Is Lying is largely set at Bayview High, and its four major “point-of-view” characters are all students there. Though young and seemingly naïve, having been raised in an idyllic Southern California town, the four main characters prove over the course of the novel that they are more savvy, passionate, and well-adjusted than many of the adults in their lives. As the novel’s young protagonists work together to solve the mysterious web of lies they’ve all been caught up in, McManus argues that it is often children and young adults rather than their parents, teachers, or elders who have the wisdom and the wherewithal to change their lives—and even the world.
The adult characters throughout the novel are detached from their children, often backwards in their thinking about gender roles and social justice, and quick to judge. By creating a set of adult characters whose thinking is seriously flawed—and whose opinions and snap judgements often directly threaten the well-being of the younger characters—McManus establishes a counterintuitive, subversive thesis: adults are often more self-obsessed and out of touch than the children they so easily indict for the same reasons. Bronwyn’s parents are so focused on making sure their children’s choices and trajectories reflect well on themselves that they ignore whether or not their children are actually happy. Bronwyn is crumbling under an inordinate amount of pressure to thrive in her academics and her extracurricular activities, and it nearly costs her everything. Meanwhile, her sister Maeve, who suffered from leukemia as a child, has been so caged-in by the pity of others that she attempts to break the mold and prove that she’s a normal kid in ways that are often dangerous, such as getting drunk at parties and developing a startling proficiency as a hacker. The Bayview Four’s lawyers are also more concerned with their clients’ appearances than their actual well-being. Bronwyn, Cooper, and Addy are all instructed to avoid one another, and Nate as well, for fear of raising suspicion. Because the four are kept apart for so much of the novel by the trusted adult forces in their lives, their ability to band together and focus on their common goal of solving the mystery surrounding Simon’s death once and for all is delayed and hindered.
Another adult character whose advice is seriously flawed is Addy’s mother, Ms. Calloway. A stereotypical California mom who clings to her youth, plumping her lips through plastic surgery and dyeing her hair to match her daughters’, Ms. Calloway is alone in life and yet fiercely believes that the only way to find stability and success is on the coattails of a man. She brazenly tries to impress this knowledge upon Addy and Ashton, and is blind to the ways in which her harmful advice has landed both her daughters in unhappy—and in Addy’s case, even dangerous—relationships. Addy puts up with her mother telling her that she isn’t “college material,” and Bayview is the only place she’ll ever find “a decent boy with a good future” who can take care of her. She internalizes this rhetoric to the point of sacrificing her own happiness to be with Jake because she believes that being unhappy with a boy is better than being happy and single. McManus uses Ms. Calloway as the most obvious symbol of the ways in which the adults in the novel are failing the children within it. Addy and her other peers eventually realize that the only way to get to the truth is to ignore the harmful influence of the ill-informed adults who have underestimated them at every turn and try to make some change themselves.
When the Bayview Four at last start collaborating—away from the watchful eyes of their parents, lawyers, and teachers—they eventually make important connections between the seemingly disparate events surrounding Simon’s death and track the story to its source. They crack the case without help from any adults—and in doing so, save themselves. McManus contrasts the resilience, wit, passion, and deep inner lives of her young protagonists against the incompetence, judgement, and ruthlessness of the adults who rule their lives in order to demonstrate how powerful children and young adults can be—and how despite all of the prejudice and stereotyping millennials face, they have the ability to change the world around them.
Wisdom of the Youth ThemeTracker
Wisdom of the Youth Quotes in One of Us is Lying
Another long silence descends while I try to gather my thoughts. I should be angrier, probably. I should demand proof of his trustworthiness, even though I have no idea what that would look like. I should ask lots of pointed questions designed to ferret out whatever other lies he’s told me.
But the thing is, I do believe him. I won’t pretend I know Nate inside and out after a few weeks, but I know what it's like to tell yourself a lie so often that it becomes the truth. I did it, and I haven’t had to muddle through life almost completely on my own.
And I’ve never thought he had it in him to kill Simon.
It’s a mundane, innocuous conversation compared to yesterday’s lunch, when we caught up on my police visit, Nate's mother, and the fact that Addy got called to the station separately to answer questions about the missing EpiPens again. Yesterday we were murder suspects with complicated personal lives, but today we're just being girls.
I sit with Mary in the interrogation room after Detective Chang leaves, thankful there’s no two-way mirror as I bury my head in my hands. Life as I knew it is over, and pretty soon nobody will look at me the same way. I was going to tell eventually, but in a few years, maybe? When I was a star pitcher and untouchable. Not now. Not like this.
"Cooper." Mary puts a hand on my shoulder. "Your father will be wondering why we're still in here. You need to talk to him."
"I can't," I say automatically. Cain't.
"Your father loves you," she says quietly.
I almost laugh… He loves when I strike out the side and get attention from flashy scouts, and when my name scrolls across the bottom of ESPN. But me?
He doesn’t even know me.
[Nate] crosses to our table and dumps his backpack next to Bronwyn. She stands up, winds her arms around his neck, and kisses him like they're alone while the entire cafeteria erupts into gasps and catcalls. I stare as much as everyone else. I mean, I kind of guessed, but this is pretty public. I'm not sure if Bronwyn’s trying to distract everyone from Cooper or if she couldn’t help herself. Maybe both.
Either way, Cooper's effectively been forgotten. He's motionless at the entrance until I grab his arm. "Come sit. The whole murder club at one table. They can stare at all of us together."
We're not getting anywhere with this conversation. But I'm struck by a couple of things as I listen to them talk. One: I like all of them more than I thought I would. Bronwyn’s obviously been the biggest surprise, and like doesn't cover it. But Addy's turned into kind of a badass, and Cooper's not as one- dimensional as I thought.
And two: I don’t think any of them did it.
I'm not sure you could call it journalism, but Mikhail Powers Investigates definitely has an impact over the next few days. Somebody starts a Change.org petition to drop the investigation that collects almost twenty thousand signatures. The MLB and local colleges get heat about whether they discriminate against gay players. The tone of the media coverage shifts, with more questions being raised about the police’s handling of the case than about us. And when I return to school on Monday, people actually talk to me again. […] Maybe my life won’t ever be fully normal again, but by the end of the week I start to hope it'll be less criminal.
"I'm not looking for another boyfriend, Mom."
She stares at me like I’ve sprouted wings and started speaking Chinese. “Why on earth not? It's been ages since you and Jake broke up."
"I spent more than three years with Jake. I could use some downtime." I say it mostly to argue, but as soon as the words come out of my mouth I know they're true. My mother started dating when she was fourteen, like me, and hasn't stopped since. Even when it means going out with an immature man-boy who's too cowardly to bring her home to his parents.
I don’t want to be that afraid to be alone.
"Let's go back to what we know," Bronwyn says. Her voice is almost clinical, but her face is flushed brick red. “Simon was one of those people who thought he should be at the center of everything, but wasn’t. And he was obsessed with the idea of making some kind of huge, violent splash at school. He fantasized about it all the time on those 4chan threads. What if this was his version of a school shooting? Kill himself and take a bunch of students down with him, but in an unexpected way. Like framing them for murder." She turns to her sister. "What did Simon say on 4chan, Maeve? Do something original. Surprise me when you take out a bunch of lemming assholes."