15 Books with Unreliable Narrators and Ambiguous Endings

The story begins with a murder, and the lonely, introspective narrator devotes the rest of the novel to telling the reader about his role in it, and how he seemingly got away with it. The setting is a small Vermont college, the characters members of an isolated, eccentric circle of classics majors, who murder one of their own. Strongly reminiscent of The Likeness in setting, Crime and Punishment in plot, and Brideshead Revisited in tone. I finally read this recently, and now I understand why opinions differ widely on Tartt's debut novel: it's a compelling—and chilling—tale, but there's not a single likable character.
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I can't do better than The New York Times, which wrote, "Ian McEwan's remarkable novel Atonement is a love story, a war story and a story about the destructive powers of the imagination." The story hinges on a horrible, life-altering lie told by a 13-year-old girl and its devastating ripple effects. I can't say too much about how the writing process plays into this story without spoiling it. But in a novel that's all about the dangerous power of the imagination, the characters' revealed imaginings for their own futures are breathtaking.
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I read this as my "book you can finish in a day" for the 2016 Reading Challenge. As expected, it's not exactly scary, but Jackson is sure good at infusing a story with a creepy atmosphere. In this work, her last completed novel before her death, she tells the story of the Blackwood family. Not so long ago there were seven Blackwoods, but four of them dropped dead from arsenic poisoning several years ago and how that happened remains a mystery. Read this during daylight hours: its themes of family secrets, hateful neighbors, and mysterious deaths aren't the stuff of bedtime reading.
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From the Los Angeles Times Book Review: "A story to make you believe in the soul-sustaining power of fiction." This is the story of Piscene Patel, a teenage boy from India who survives a shipwreck and subsequently spends 227 on a life raft with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Years later, Pi tells his own story, but a surprise at the end leaves the reader wondering if they really understand what happened on that raft. If you turn immediately back to page 1 and start reading again looking for clues, you're in good company.
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In a season where every suspense novel is expected to have a "shocking plot twist!" this tightly-crafted novel makes your jaw drop time and again, without feeling gimmicky or manipulative. I was stunned as I slowly came to see that the story wasn't about what I thought it was about at all. On a dark, rainy night, a mother lets go of her son's hand for just an instant. The devastating accident sets the plot in motion. Part police procedural, part domestic suspense, with the ring of authenticity, no doubt thanks to Mackintosh's own 12 years as a police officer. This is an emotional roller coaster of a book. (Sensitive themes ahead, so mind your triggers.)
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This nail-biter unravels the story of two girls who disappeared from the same tiny North Carolina town a decade apart. Ten years ago Nicolette Farrell left her hometown for good after her best friend vanished without a trace. She was never going back, but when she gets the call that her dad is sick she reluctantly heads home. Shortly after her arrival another girl vanishes—right after she'd been asking too many questions about the first girl's disappearance. The real twist here is the interesting format: after a short prologue, the story is told in reverse, starting with day 15 of the mystery and workings backwards to day 1. This would feel like a cheap trick if done poorly but it wasn't, and I loved it. If you need characters you can root for, this isn't the book for you. But if you love a creepy mystery in an evocative setting that is practically a character in its own right, bump this to the top of your list. A dark kind of fun. Publication date June 28 2016.
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This 1930s Gothic classic is an un-put-down-able, curl-up-by-the-fire mystery. Don't be put off by its age: this thrilling novel feels surprisingly current. Suspenseful but not scary, and it holds its tension on a re-reading: a sure sign of a well-crafted thriller.
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This psychological mystery features a deeply unreliable narrator, but not for the usual reasons. The story focuses on Maud, an 81-year-old woman whose dementia is rapidly worsening. She's convinced her friend Elizabeth is missing, but because of the dementia, no one believes her—not the police, or her son, or her well-meaning daughter. But in moments of clarity, Maud becomes convinced that another life is at stake, and she has to untangle the mystery before she runs out of time. From Booklist (starred review): "Part mystery, part meditation on memory, part Dickensian revelation of how apparent charity may hurt its recipients, this is altogether brilliant."
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Fitzgerald's classic was the topic of my first high school term paper—and despite that, I still love it. Fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby has built a mansion on Long Island Sound for the sole purpose of wooing and winning his lost love Daisy Buchanan, who married another man while Gatsby was serving overseas. This classic American novel captures the Jazz Age in all its decadence and excess, while weaving a wistful story of love and loss. Even if you've seen the movie (especially if you've seen the movie) you need to read the book. The Audible version, narrated by Oscar-nominated actor Jake Gyllenhaal was a Audie Award Finalist.
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By Karen Joy Fowler, author of the New York Times bestselling The Jane Austen Book Club, shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, and winner of the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award. From the publisher: "Meet the Cooke family: Mother and Dad, brother Lowell, sister Fern, and Rosemary, who begins her story in the middle. She has her reasons....." But then her sister becomes estranged, or at least that's what we'll call it—don't read the description! Just start reading."
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From the publisher: "Awe and exhiliration--along with heartbreak and mordant wit--abound in Lolita, Nabokov's most famous and controversial novel, which tells the story of the aging Humbert Humbert's obsessive, devouring, and doomed passion for the nymphet Dolores Haze. Lolita is also the story of a hypercivilized European colliding with the cheerful barbarism of postwar America. Most of all, it is a meditation on love--love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation."
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In this short Australian classic, a group of girls from the Appleyard College for Young Ladies venture out for a picnic at Hanging Rock on a beautiful afternoon. Three of the girls set out for a hike, and are never seen again. As I was reading this short novel, it strongly reminded me of something I'd read before, but I couldn't figure out WHAT. I finally realized it wasn't a book at all—it was the TV show Lost! (If that's not a recommendation, I don't know what is.)
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It’s no coincidence there are two Tana French books on this list: she writes a great book club novel. This is her first book in the Dublin Murder Squad, and it’s seriously disturbing. But if your book club can stomach it, you can talk about psychopaths and supernatural disturbances. Book club highlight: the ending.
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Ellison sets the tone with her first line: "You aren't going to like me very much." But who is this narrator, and why does she say that? Sutton and Ethan Montclair seem to have the perfect marriage—two successful writers who not only love each other, but understand and support each other. Or that's what people think, until Sutton disappears, leaving a note telling Ethan not to look for her. As the hours tick by, Ethan begins to look more and more suspicious, and as a local investigator starts quizzing friends and family, it quickly becomes apparent that their perfect relationship was anything but. And THAT is when things get really creepy. This twisty thriller weaves in extra fun for book-lovers: it's full of the kinds of details about the writing life that makes avid readers' hearts go pitter-patter. I also loved the unusual Franklin TN setting. Domestic noir is hot these days; this release is best of class.
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I have recommended this one in Books You'll Just Have to Talk To Someone About, What Makes a Great Book Club Novel, and other places. I picked this one up when Michael Pollan raved about it, saying it “embodied the spirit of slow food and life.” Paterniti had me from the words Zingerman’s Delicatessen. The story artfully weaves itself right into the heart of Catelonian Spain, but then it becomes muddled and confused. The reader can decide if this is weakness, or metaphor. Book club highlight: the ending. Is it altogether unsatisfying, or completely perfect?
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