The Allure of the Unreliable Narrator

We’re all unreliable narrators of our personal stories, to some degree, whether we’re comfortable admitting it or not. That may be why these fictional characters intrigue many of us on some visceral level. We recognize the impulse. Most of us are on social media these days where we share our filtered and carefully curated version of our lives. The perfect couple. The perfect day. A perfect illusion.


On a more basic level, we tell friends that “everything’s fine” when we’re hurting or soften the truth about real life for our children. We reserve, perhaps, the most undependable actions for the one we love the most. Romance, in its first blush, is far different than a relationship six months, a year or decades later. 


Maybe domestic suspense novels featuring unreliable narrators are so popular because they shine a light on our society’s obsession with illusion. We recognize ourselves in the little lies, in the posturing. When we put our best foot forward to flirt with someone we’ve just met, how different those same words and actions can seem after we’ve been together for awhile.


Some of my favorite works of fiction feature these alluring unreliable narrators. Consider the book that started the latest phase, Gone Girlby Gillian Flynn. Probably the domestic suspense books like mine are enjoying some time in the sun. Gone Girlblew open the domestic suspense and unreliable narrator world with not one but two unreliable folks who happen to be married to each other. Nick and Amy were once in love, we think. This twisty tale is one of my favorites. Another current example is The Girl on the Trainby Paula Hawkins. Poor Rachel. Our guide in this brilliant story is an alcoholic, unemployed divorcee who commutes into London each day because she doesn’t want to admit she’s lost her job. That’s sad, of course, but what livens up this story is the writing, the descriptions of Rachel’s state of mind. We like Rachel, we root for her, even as we are sucked into the horror of what is actually happening. 

Classics are filled with unreliable narrators, too, in books and in film. I loved Tell-Tale Heartby Edgar Allan Poe and The Lotteryby Shirley Jackson (And, I should add read A Good Man is Hardto Find by Flannery O’Conner.) In film, The Life of Piand Life is Beautifulboth use the unreliable narrator’s escapist visions to mask the reality of their tragic situations, perhaps the only way to survive. In The Great Gatsbyby F. Scott Fitzgerald, my all-time favorite, Nick Carroway tells the reader from page one that he’s an objective observer, meaning most likely he isn’t. 

Characters with various degrees of unreliability make for wonderful stories. Another recent favorite of mine is The Dinnerby Herman Koch. I feel a kindred spirit with this book because Paul Lohman is unsettling and nasty. (I didn’t realize until writing this that our narrators share the same first name. Creepy.) You don’t like him, but that isn’t the point. The Dinner’sPaul is very flawed, and extremely unlikable. The story is built around secrets, and even as you turn the pages, you realize you may not want to know the truth but you just can’t stop reading.   

I hope that’s what happens when people pick up Best Day Ever. Like in The Dinner, Paul Strom, the creepy protagonist of Best Day Ever, takes unreliable to the extreme.  He wants you to believe he’s the perfect husband, a loving father, and a successful businessman. He promises his wife, Mia, the first day of their romantic weekend together will be the best day ever. They’ve been married for years, though. Does she still believe the illusion? I hope you’ll read Best Day Ever to find out.

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