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Conversations With Myself (& Hopefully You): Unreliable Narrators

So if you read my Monday Musts from a few weeks ago, you saw me post about the following segment on NPR regarding unreliable narrators, comparing books written by women and the 'girl' in the title phenomenon of recent thrillers/mysteries.  This segment was also inspired by this really interesting article by Megan Abbott.  I've been thinking about this a lot since I heard this segment so listen to it and read Megan's article then we can discuss:

Unreliable Narrators: YAY or NAY?

There is nothing I dislike more than a book becoming super popular and then every book that may be even tangentially similar being compared to that book.  First, it was Twilight, and when that was an international phenomenon, there was a drove of YA fantasy love triangles written and released, all of which were touted as the next Twilight.  And then it was Fifty Shades of Gray, and I'm sure we all remember all sorts of erotica being published once that book took off, and every single book was described as the next Fifty Shades of Gray.  And now it seems like every book that comes out is either the next Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train -- there are countless books being described as the next of either or both of these and/or gratuitously using "girl" in the title.  To me, it seems like this phenomenon is more likely to occur when a book written by a woman enjoys enormous success.  I'm not sure why this is but this post is about something common to both Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, and which truly seems to be the latest "trend" in books: unreliable narrators that are women, in books written by women, usually of the mystery/thriller genre.

First, let's talk about what it means to be an unreliable narrator.  Wikipedia defines an "unreliable narrator" as:

[A] narrator, whether in literature, film, or theatre, whose credibility has been seriously compromised.  The term was coined in 1961 by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction.  While unreliable narrators are almost by definition first-person narrators, arguments have been made for the existence of unreliable second- and third-person narrators, especially within the context of film and television.
Sometimes the narrator's unreliability is made immediately evident. For instance, a story may open with the narrator making a plainly false or delusional claim or admitting to being severely mentally ill, or the story itself may have a frame in which the narrator appears as a character, with clues to the character's unreliability. A more dramatic use of the device delays the revelation until near the story's end. This twist ending forces readers to reconsider their point of view and experience of the story. In some cases the narrator's unreliability is never fully revealed but only hinted at, leaving readers to wonder how much the narrator should be trusted and how the story should be interpreted.
As you can gather in the two articles above, the unreliable female narrator is far from a new concept so why is it now so popular?  I personally love thrillers and and mysteries, and I'm not even sure I can pinpoint a book that I consider the gold standard, but the unreliable narrator is commonly used in this genre.  That being said, I haven't loved a lot of thrillers lately and I think it's because so many of them are suffering from trying to be either the next The Girl on the Train or Gone Girl in their poor usage of an unreliable narrator.  I didn't even like The Girl on the Train but I read it because it was touted as the next big thing and an amazing thriller.  I was actually bored while reading it although I don't generally mind unreliable narrators -- it kind of depends on why they are unreliable for me, which may seem a bit judgmental.  For instance, in The Girl on the Train, the narrator is unreliable because she is usually intoxicated.  That made me a little less interested in her story and her inability to remember what happened because she was always drinking until she blacked out.  This reason for unreliability didn't work for me.  In contrast, in a book like Swerve by Vicki Pettersson, the narrator Kristine was unreliable because she was hiding something about her past.  This worked for me because these secrets were revealed as the novel progressed and Kristine was a fighter versus passive in trying to uncover the mystery despite the fact that we aren't sure what she's hiding about herself for most of the novel.  

There are obviously a lot of differences in all these books being released lately that employee an unreliable female narrator but I guess what I'm trying to say is that I don't buy into the gimmick that every new thriller released right now is the next, best thing simply because it's written by a woman and is told by an unreliable female narrator.  I have tried countless of these next "girl" thrillers: Try Not To Breathe (suffers from the same unreliable narrator reason as The Girl on a Train - DNF), She's Not There (unreliable narrator hiding her past but mostly because she was in an accident and doesn't remember), The Girl in the Maze (unreliable female narrator that suffers from mental illness but a lot of confusion about what was real) and The Passenger (another unreliable narrator hiding from her past but not very thrilling) and none worked for me, for different reasons.  I need something more in my thriller than the ubiquitous use of unreliable female narrator and that is being thrilled.  If the unreliable narrator gets me there, I'm happy to be along for the ride but let's not call every book that comes out this summer the next anything -- I want a book to stand on its own.

As always, this is just my opinion.  What do you think, do you like unreliable narrators?  How do you feel about every single mystery and/or thriller that comes out being compared to either or both The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl?  What's your favorite thriller?



  1. I HATE that every thriller with a women who may be an unreliable narrator is compared to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. I liked both of those books quite a bit. I feel now I have too been disappointed with thrillers/suspense stuff I have been reading. None of it is as thrilling, for lack of a better word, as I want. I am not sure if the problem lies in poor use of the unreliable narrator but it may. Great discussion!

  2. Wow! I didn't realize there were so many new thriller books with unreliable narrators. I haven't read that many - still haven't read Gone Girl - so I'm pretty new to it, but it doesn't take long for me to become over a certain trend. Trends sell which is probably why there are so many books these days with unreliable narrators, but come on, if every thriller/suspense book has unreliable narrators, well then they become very predictable. Hopefully, the trend dies out soon and we see some original content!
    Great post, Eva!!

  3. I love books with unreliable narrators. I do NOT like all these books being compared to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. It drives me nuts, but I guess like with Twilight before and etc that's the trend now. It must work because they keep marketing books this way. :/

  4. I do not mind unreliable narrators when they fit what the story is about--which typically for me is mysteries or thrillers. This is a great post!

  5. I'm actually torn about the unreliable narrator. I really got more out of the podcast than I thought I would because I tended to roll my eyes at the comparisons. I agree about some books sort of jumping on the bandwagon for the successful predecessors, especially when I never saw the comparisons to be true. BUT, the podcast from NPR made me see things a little differently, noticing what really could be comparisons that I hadn't noticed before. I admit that I'm somewhat drawn to those comparisons now for some books and still roll my eyes at others. Yep, where I was avoiding any books that made any type of comparison for a while to those you mentioned, I now find myself drawn to them, thanks to NPR. Dang it!

  6. I like unreliable narrators for some reason. My favorite would have to be Mim from Mosquitoland by David Arnold. And I really hate comparisons when it comes to books. I cringe whenever I see "the next Twilight" or "the next Fifty Shades". Stop it!!

  7. This is a great post eva! I like unreliable narrators to a certain extent. If the unreliability serves a narrative purpose or really adds to the story, then I'm all for it. But it has to be done well! i feel like, in a lot of books with unreliable narrators, they're unreliable just because it is a trend, and that is when it grates on me.

  8. I'm not usually a fan of an unreliable narrator, but there can be an exception. I don't like this trend because with a mystery or thriller because it takes a little bit of the surprise out of it. You're already suspecting something fishy with the narration when the book is compared to Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train. I got a little way into The Girl on the Train and couldn't do it. I don't like reading about someone drinking and passing out time after time. Stories with self-destructive behavior are hardly ever appealing to me. Great discussion, Eva! :)

  9. I don't like when books are compared to the latest "it" book. It drives me nuts and away. I can't think off the top of my head a book that revealed an unreliable narrator at the end in the traditional way. However, a few years ago I read The Quest for Juice where this schizophrenic guy talks himself into believing he has killed someone. He has many idiosyncrasies and nuances, but by the end of the book it's revealed he is in a normal state of mind and mental capacity. The truth behind the matters - as more continued to arise - was interesting!

  10. I'm trying to think of books I've read with an unreliable narrator and I'm drawing a blank...Mara Dyer??? Does that count?
    I liked her in that case because I was dying to know what Mara was hiding and what was up with her. The whole trend thing about books being the next (insert here) drives me crazy and is one of the fastest ways for me to NOT want to read a book...

  11. Mysteries and thrillers are not actually my thing, I prefer Romantic Suspence. But even I’ve come across books labeled as Next The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl. I don’t like when publishers do it, either. In some cases such comparisons are misleading and actually do a book more damage than good, because a potential reader pick up a book with wrong expectations. I guess I don’t mind unreliable narrator if a book’s done well. Great post, Eva!

  12. I do not read mysteries much and have not read The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl yet so I cannot really comment on the topic of unreliable narrator. But I absolutely loath the trend of comparing new books to big phenomenons. It used to be Twilight and Fifty Shades in tha past. Now it is Outlander, Game of Thrones or Gone Girl. From my personal experience such marketing actions are usually false, serve only to gain attention and use success of others. I truly wish publishes would stop doing that...

  13. I don't read thrillers often, but I do tend to like unreliable narrators - especially those who suffer from mental illness, where you're never quite sure what to believe I haven't read either Gone Girl OR TGotT, though, so I'm not comparing books to them in my head.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

  14. I DO enjoy an unreliable narrator... but not when it is ridiculously overdone. I think I start to like, figure it out really early on and then not care, you know? I like it, but when it's done right. Otherwise, it just becomes another overused trope.

    Also, I HATE when books are compared to other books. Because I don;t want to read that other book again, I want to read this NEW book. WHYYYY is this a thing!? Make it stop! Love this discussion!

  15. With the comparison thing, I understand it but don't necessarily like it. I understand that it's a powerful marketing tool - compare a new book to one that was a phenomenal hit and the readers will flock to it - but I think it does a disservice to the books as being something unique and able to stand on its own. Plus, the comparisons are often wildly off-base. As far as unreliable narrators - I hate them. How's that for a definitive statement? LOL I really, really can't stand an unreliable narrator and I steer clear of any book that has one (assuming I hear of it in advance). It's a total deal-breaker for me. I feel cheated by the author somehow. And angry that I can't trust the narrator. The times when I read a book with an unreliable narrator (not knowing ahead of time) I always ended up disliking the book. Never fails.

    Tanya @ Girl Plus Books

  16. The only time I have gotten mad about an unreliable reliable narrator was when the character told what had happened, then said in the next chapter that he was lying and that's not what happened. That really irritated me, and the character did it more than once in the book. Otherwise, I don't mind unreliable narrators because they make me think about what is really going on.

    Jen @ Books That Hook


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