An unreliable narrator is, as the phrase says, a narrator who can't be trusted. Unreliable narrators are a device in fiction usually to throw doubts on which events actually occurred. The narrators in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Charles Willeford's Cockfighter, Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights are all cited as unreliable. One of the biggest books from 2012 was Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, which also has unreliable narration.
When it comes to romance novels, however, an unreliable narrator would seem to be an anomaly; after all, if you can't trust the hero or heroine, how can you trust in the Happy Ever After? A recent discussion on Twitter revealed, however, that the unreliable narrator in romantic fiction does exist, even though it is a rarity.
Author Diane Farr (@DianeFarr) had several examples, starting off with Gothic author Mary Stewart's The Ivy Tree. In this book, a young woman is hired to impersonate a woman who went missing eight years ago, in order to inherit a fortune:
A trick of coloring...Her walk...The way she smiled. If Mary Grey looked so much like the missing heiress, why should she not be an heiress? To the lonely young woman living in a dreary furnished room, faced with an uncertain future, the impersonation offered intriguing possibilities.
And so plain Mary Grey became the glamorous Annabel Winslow. But she did not live happily ever after. In fact, she almost did not live at all. Because someone wanted Annabel missing...permanently.
It makes sense that there is an element of mystery as well as romance, since of course there is an overall mystery to the narrator's veracity. Stewart was a master of the Gothic genre, which leads to another book in the genre, Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca. Rebecca's narrator, Mrs. de Winter, is unreliable to herself as well as to the reader (interestingly, the filmed version of Rebecca starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine made a significant change to the book that dramatically alters its outcome), which makes her seeing of events unreliable, but doesn't necessarily makes her an unreliable narrator.
Diane DC (@Saschakeet) cites Sandra Brown's Envy, a romantic suspense, which has a novel within a novel within a novel, according to a Publishers Weekly review. The narrator—the hero—is unreliable, but there is a happy ending, since this is romantic suspense. Brown uses the device in other books as well, Saschakeet says, citing Lethal, Play Dirty, and Smoke Screen.
Sarah Waters's Fingersmith, also recommended by Diane Farr, sounds glorious—a Victorian-set scam with a lesbian romance (Farr says not to read the blurbs for fear of being spoiled as well!).
Anne Stuart's contemporaries flirt with unreliable narrators, but leave enough clues to make the resolution apparent (as apparent as can be in a Stuart contemporary, that is).
Do you like not knowing for sure if the characters are telling the truth? Have you read any of these books? Which unreliable narrator is your favorite?
Megan Frampton is the Community Manager for the HeroesandHeartbreakers site. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband and son, and always tries to tell the truth.