The best books with characters who can’t get their story straight

Who am I?

I love stories. No surprise, right? And the longer I’ve written, the more I realize just how many of my stories are about stories – either directly or indirectly. I’m fascinated by the way characters revise their own stories as they’re living them, or after they live them, usually in order to find a degree of peace that the truth simply doesn’t offer. I think the most interesting characters lie, deny, and revise not because they are conniving, not because they’re trying to get the upper hand on someone else, but rather in order to be able to live with themselves. 


I wrote...

The Fall of Lisa Bellow

By Susan Perabo,

Book cover of The Fall of Lisa Bellow

What is my book about?

After witnessing a classmate’s violent abduction, fourteen-year-old Meredith Oliver’s life changes overnight. Faced with a newfound popularity at school, and an already-struggling family attempting to help her through the trauma, Meredith retreats to a world of her own creation, revising the events of the kidnapping and joining the missing Lisa Bellow in a nightmarish fantasy. This is a family drama; the real mystery is not the crime itself, but the complex dynamics of what binds people together.

The books I picked & why

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Atonement

By Ian McEwan,

Book cover of Atonement

Why this book?

Of all the characters on this list who have trouble keeping their stories straight, McEwan’s lead character Briony Tallis is the most conscious of her motives for keeping the truth at bay. A writer herself, Briony spends her life writing and revising everything that happens to her. The first time I reached the end of this novel, I immediately flipped back and read the last 10 pages again – I was so staggered by the conclusion that I simply couldn’t believe it was true. 


The Remains of the Day

By Kazuo Ishiguro,

Book cover of The Remains of the Day

Why this book?

Unlike Briony, English butler Mr. Stephens seems to have no idea that the story he tells the reader is full of profound, tragic, life-altering holes. He is so insistent upon his version of things that, even in moments where the reader thinks Stephens is finally about to achieve some clarity, he backs away from the truth because it is simply too painful to utter. Like all the other characters on this list, Mr. Stephens’ inability to get his story straight is a matter of self-preservation. This is one of the saddest books ever written.


Rebecca

By Daphne du Maurier,

Book cover of Rebecca

Why this book?

Mrs. Maxim DeWinter is the new and naïve bride of a wealthy, charming, and clearly troubled man. Who can blame her for not knowing the truth about Rebecca, her husband’s late wife? Nobody tells her anything. What little information she is able to glean comes from people who clearly have a vested interest in keeping the facts hidden. So our narrator speculates endlessly, imagining and reimagining scenes to suit the most palatable version of the truth.


Lincoln in the Bardo

By George Saunders,

Book cover of Lincoln in the Bardo

Why this book?

This novel famously features a cast of 166 narrators… and not a single one of them has any idea what’s happened to them. Again, it’s a question of self-preservation; they don’t want to know what’s going on, because what’s going on is this: they’re dead. This is not a spoiler. The reader knows the situation from the beginning, and thus the tension in the book is not about our discovery of the truth, but about theirs. This is a powerful and surprisingly uplifting book about trust and acceptance. 


My Year of Rest and Relaxation

By Ottessa Moshfegh,

Book cover of My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Why this book?

The depressed twenty-something narrator of this novel has an impossible time keeping her stories straight because she lies to literally everyone about literally everything. Even the title of the book is a lie! She is neither resting nor relaxing, but is instead doping herself into an unfeeling oblivion, sleeping 18-20 hours a day with the help of dozens of medications she monthly lies her way into getting from her negligent therapist. It’s hard to watch someone destroy themselves; sometimes, it’s also hard to look away. 


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