The tenth category for the 2017 Reading Challenge—for those of you who are stretching yourselves this year—is “a book with an unreliable narrator or ambiguous ending.”
Readers, here’s what I like about these kinds of books: when the narrator can’t be trusted, or the ending is open-ended, the reader has to think for herself to figure out the story. She has to actively engage with the text in a way that other books may not demand. She has to critically evaluate the situations in the pages to figure out what on earth is going on. She has to draw her own conclusions, because the author doesn’t draw them for her.
More on unreliability: narrators can’t be trusted for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they’re deliberately lying, sometimes they misunderstand the situation, perhaps they’re drunk, or forgetful, or suffer from some other condition that makes us doubt their version of events. (Some say we’re all unreliable narrators, because anyone’s version of events is just one of many, but that’s not the definition we’re going with here.)
More on ambiguity: some stories don’t resolve their plots. We get to the last page without knowing definitely what happened; it’s up to the reader to fill in the blanks. Some readers relish the challenge of deciding for themselves what happened next; some close the book feeling only frustration.
Need ideas for this category? I’m sharing 15 of my favorite books with unreliable narrators and ambiguous endings below, although I’m not always telling you which is which. With some books, deciding who can and can’t be trusted, and figuring out where the story may end up, is a huge part of the fun. I won’t spoil that for you.
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, told by Nick Carraway—but can we really trust his version of the tale? Critics and readers are split. More info →
Suspenseful but not scary, and it holds its tension on a re-reading: a sure sign of a well-crafted thriller. 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. Because the young unnamed wife doesn't understand what's going on for a long time, neither does the reader. More info →
I've been meaning to read Lolita for years, so this may be my personal pick for this category. (I have my eye on the audio edition, narrated by Jeremy Irons, because I keep hearing Nabokov's superbly-crafted prose is even better when read aloud.) Some critics argue that Humbert Humbert is the best example of the unreliable narrator in literature; others argue that he's not unreliable, just painfully honest. More info →
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. More info →
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. More info →
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. More info →
This is the only nonfiction title on this list. 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. Discussion highlight: the ending. Is it an utter failure, or completely perfect? More info →
This is the story of a family in middle America, two parents and three kids, completely normal—with one major exception. Daughter Rosemary is our narrator, who insists on page 1 that she needs to skip the beginning of this story and start in the middle instead. We soon learn that when Rosemary's sister left, everyone else fell apart, and they're still picking up the pieces. Don't read the description, just start reading. (Before a Modern Mrs Darcy team member gave this Man Booker Prize finalist to her sister, she removed the jacket so she wouldn't be tempted.) More info →
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. Ten years ago Nicolette Farrell left her hometown for good after her best friend vanished without a trace. 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. A dark kind of fun. More info →
It's trendy these days for every suspense novel to have a "shocking plot twist!" but this tightly-crafted novel makes your jaw drop time and again, without feeling gimmicky or manipulative. 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.) More info →
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. What happened to them? (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!) More info →
This is the first of French's popular Dublin Murder Squad; it’s tight, twisty, and unpredictable. The story has two primary threads: one revolves around a psychopath, the other around a supernatural disturbance, and you'll want to talk about both. The ending makes this perfect for book clubs—there's so much to discuss—but I won't tell you how, or why, because getting there is half the fun. More info →
The story hinges on a horrible, life-altering lie told by a 13-year-old girl and its devastating ripple effects. But in a novel that's all about the dangerous power of the imagination, the characters' revealed imaginings for their own futures are breathtaking. More info →
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. But how much of his story is really what it seems? 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. More info →
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. More info →