Jan 11 2013 2:30pm

That’s What SHE Said: The Unreliable Narrator in Romance Novels

Gone Girl by Gillian FlynnAn 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.

The Ivy Tree by Mary StewartAnd 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.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
Rainbow Rowell's forthcoming YA Eleanor & Park has two narrators and one turns out to have been unreliable about one aspect of the story (mostly because, as in Rebecca, the character was unreliable to him/herself). It makes for a little twist that'll get you right in the gut, so I won't spoil it, but I thought it was really well done.

I'm fascinated by unreliable narrators--thanks for the recs!
2. taragel
My favorite unreliable narrator and romance might be Rob Ryan and Rob/Cassie from Tana French's In the Woods. Though the book is primarily a mystery novel, there's a very central and tangled relationship between Rob (who, as a child, was involved in a tragic event that has altered his memory and his outlook on life considerably....although he denies it at the start of the book) and his cop partner Cassie that turns romantic. It's gutting and moving and I really love their relationship, which very much hinges on the unreliable nature of Rob. (Not to mention Tana's beautiful, haunting prose!) Cassie's own novel The Likeness, also turns her into an unreliable narrator to some degree as well, as it hinges on Cassie going undercover as a college student who is basically her doppleganger. (She's not lying but she definitely has a skewed perspective and a lot of self-denial going on.)
3. lalley0219
I tryed to read gone girl but didnt like it. I only go about 50 pages in but my coworkers keep telling me I have to read it so ill try it again
Lege Artis
4. LegeArtis
Gone Girl is fantastic. I love both of Flynn's previous work, so it didn't come as surprise that was one of my fav reads in 2012. And Rebecca is classic. It's a must read for mistery/thriller fans.
Unreliable character isn't always a liar. I read S.J. Watson's Before I Go To Sleep, but here narrator is unreliable because she have some sort of anterograde amnesia-she forgets everything in her sleep. It was very interesting, because she has to rely on what other characters are telling, and since she is narrator so does the reader.
Sandra Brown's The Winess is great example of third-person unreliable narrator. In last chapter you found out what a big liar our heroine was.
They say that every first-person narrator is unreliable to a certain extent. And you're right, there isn't many examples in romance. I know there is a big chunk of readers who think that Jane Eyre is unreliable narrator, but I never had that feeling.
As for my favorite unrealibale narrator novels: Fight Club by C.Palahniuk, Shutter Island by D. Lehane, American Psycho by B.E.Ellis...
I love this post, Megan...
Alexandra W
5. parasolprotectorate
@LegeArtis - ooh I love Shutter Island. I never saw it coming.

Again, not another romance (despite my tendencies to view it that way) but Lacey Flint in S. J. Bolton's Now You See Me and Dead Scared is another unreliable narrator. In the author's own words, she writes 'gothic thriller crime' and while I'll read romantic suspense, I'm not a paricuarly big fan of crime but I love her writing. Like Now, For Ever is coming out in April and I'm unbelievably excited.
Lege Artis
6. LegeArtis
@parasolprotectorate- S.J. Bolton is just awesome. Oh, Lacey Flint was quite ambiguous in Now You See Me... Have you read Bolton's Sacrifice? It's not part of Lacey Flint series, but DI Dana Tulloch was first introduced in this one. Bolton is one of the best in genre...
Victoria Janssen
7. VictoriaJanssen
My favorite unreliable narrator is in The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner.
8. AmandaLf
My favorite unreliable narrator is Mara Dyer in THE UNBECOMING OF MARA DYER and THE EVOLUTION OF MARA DYER by Michelle Hodkin
Alexandra W
9. parasolprotectorate
@LegeArtis - I adore S. J. Bolton and devoured all her full-length novels last year. I recently bought If Snow Hadn't Fallen and plan to read it soon! Can't wait for Like This, For Ever!
Post a comment