Tell Me Lies is the story of Lucy Albright’s struggle to find a sense of identity in her late teens and early twenties. At the beginning of the book, Lucy is eager to separate herself from her childhood. She is furious with her mother, CJ, and distances herself from her as much as possible. Lucy often feels overshadowed by her older sister, Georgia. In addition, she is ready to reject the milieu of her childhood on Long Island. Her arrival at Baird marks her striking out on her own, leaving behind both her family and the suffocating and competitive social scene of her home town. Although she discovers some freedom at Baird, Lucy soon becomes attached to Stephen. Their entanglements prove limiting to Lucy and compromise her sense of identity. As she becomes enmeshed with Stephen, Lucy figuratively and literally shrinks, becoming increasingly obsessed about limiting her calories and increasing her exercise. Her attempts to lose weight reach the point of extreme and unhealthy thinness. These dangerous pursuits mimic the futility of Lucy being able to compromise herself enough to become perfect for Stephen. Ultimately, Lucy finds a path to true independence by resolving her anger at CJ, standing up for her right to be treated well by her partners, and recovering from her eating disorder.  

While the story has intermittent scenes set at Bree’s wedding in 2017 and other flashbacks to earlier periods, the main storyline begins in 2010, when Lucy arrives at Baird. By the end of Lucy’s first night of college, all the most important characters in the book have been introduced. The groundwork is laid for the plot built around Stephen’s manipulation of Lucy in the moment when he sees her across the room at a party and feels certain he can make her trust him. The plot and their tangled relationship tips into motion the night that they share confidences about their mothers. While Stephen places no emotional weight on telling Lucy about Nora, Lucy telling Stephen about the Unforgivable Thing creates a bond in her mind. The fact that Stephen is not really listening signifies his inability to truly see Lucy (or any woman) throughout the novel. The sex they have the next morning, when Lucy experiences an orgasm from intercourse for the first time, establishes the sexual chemistry that will tie them together despite their emotional incompatibility. This dynamic leads to an internal conflict within Lucy where her head and heart are at odds rather than in harmony. It also signifies a shift in control, tipping the scale in Stephen’s favor. 

As Stephen’s control over Lucy’s emotional life grows stronger, Lucy becomes less and less powerful. Not only does she not control his behavior in the way he controls her, she also loses her sense of agency over her own life. Her anorexia becomes even more pronounced as Lucy begins fervently exercising in addition to restricting. While Stephen is not the sole impetus for this behavior, Lucy delights in his compliments of her thinness, particularly when he calls her “tiny,” showing a connection between her extreme dieting and Stephen’s power over her. Lucy’s dual focus on Stephen and being thin leads her to let go of her intellectual ambition. This is evidenced first when she drops her writing gig at The Lantern and then when she turns down her place in the Writers on the Riviera program to make herself more available for Stephen’s attention.  

Lucy struggles to become independent in the novel, but to do so, she must resolve her conflict with CJ. Her anger over CJ’s affair often plays a bigger role in Lucy’s decision-making than her own interests do. As the book progresses, she finds a tension between her desire to maintain her righteous indignation at her mother and her growing need to accept the comforts of her loving family. Her image of CJ as a selfish woman more concerned with her own pleasure than her family’s happiness is increasingly at odds with CJ’s many acts of kindness and concern for her. The climax of this conflict comes when Lucy at last confronts CJ over the Unforgiveable Thing—her affair with Gabe. When CJ apologizes and expresses compassion for Lucy’s feelings, explaining the steps she has taken to rebuild her marriage and her reasons for secrecy, their relationship is able to move toward a resolution, shown in their warm conversation in the novel’s final pages.  

Although the narrative alternates between chapters told from Lucy’s point of view and ones from Stephen’s, the story is truly Lucy’s. The book portrays Stephen’s perspective during the years that they are in each other’s lives and of certain shared elements of their past, most notably Macy’s death, but only Lucy gets a narrative voice in 2017, the latest time period in the book. The events of Bree’s wedding in 2017 show the final stages of Lucy gaining her freedom from Stephen’s influence. At first, she is anxious at the thought of seeing him at the wedding and panicked by the realization that he is now engaged to Jillian. However, after their conversation at the reception, when she realizes that her primary feeling toward him is not attraction or hatred but apathy, she is finally truly independent. The choice to exclude Stephen’s narrative voice from the novel’s current day of 2017 foreshadows Lucy’s ability to ultimately detach from him.