When it comes to real life, the last six months have brought just about all the crazy twists that I can handle. Like, seriously, I don't need any more surprises. Boring is good! Boring is fine. Boring is preferable to waking up in the middle of the night in a blind panic because something in my subconscious pulled a trigger, reminding me that this country is currently in the hands of a megalomaniacal bigot who misspells three-letter words. So, yeah, I'll take boring over a World War III-starting tweet storm any day of the week.
But when it comes to fiction? Bring on the twists. Perhaps it's even because reality has lately been so fraught that I have found myself seeking out novels that are best described using the following word: mindfuck. It actually feels like a relief to be completely absorbed in a twisted world far removed from our own, one whose labyrinthine plots keep me engaged and distracted for at least a little while, allowing me a total escape from the problems that exist off the page.
Care to see what I mean? The following 10 books are so full of twists and turns, that you'll find yourself totally enthralled, fervently flipping pages, and wildly surprised by the realization that, yes, sometimes fiction is still stranger than truth.
Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach
This debut novel is a stunner; I devoured it in one weekend, so entranced was I by the voice of the ultra-complicated narrator. Ava Antipova has returned from studying in Paris to the family vineyard in New York's Finger Lakes region, where it seems that her identical twin sister Zelda has died in a fiery blaze, though Ava has her doubts thanks to the emails that she is still receiving from Zelda. I mean, with a setup like that, what could this book possibly be other than a totally twisted masterpiece? Dolan-Leach's facility with building and sustaining suspense throughout the book is truly stunning; the plot's high tension never wavers, and even though I had my suspicions about the truth behind the book's main mystery, there were so many plot turns and twists that I was still nowhere near prepared for the utter jaw-drop of an ending.
Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
This compelling page-turner starts off with one hell of an opening sentence: "Gil Coleman looked down from the first-floor window of the bookshop and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below." From there, the narrative shifts perspectives, from a close third person set in the present day to an epistolary form set in the past of the complicated family at the center of this novel. The plot revolves around the mysterious disappearance of Ingrid, an unhappy wife and mother; did she kill herself? Did she simply run away? Clues abound throughout the book, and it's easy to feel as if you've figured out the answer. But then you find yourself at the last chapter, which is sure to blow up any idea you had of where the story was taking you.
For more on Swimming Lessons, check out our interview with Claire Fuller, here.
The Grownup by Gillian Flynn
Familiar to most readers as the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn is clearly no stranger to a major plot twist or two, and such is the case with this slim novella (more of a long short story, really), which has a psychological tautness and appealing supernatural element throughout. (It also benefits from Flynn's smart descriptions, like calling the smooth and pale wood paneling in an expensively remodeled home "Botoxed.") The ending has so many twists that it seems to double back and forth over itself, leaving readers pondering what it was that really happened on the page for long after they've closed the slim volume.
The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty by Amanda Filipacchi
This dark, satirical novel has a lot to say about the way our society values everything from beauty to talent to intelligence to kindness, skewering our preconceived notions of the way we treat each other and the way we ultimately view ourselves. Beyond that, though, there's a murderer in the midst of a group of close friends (all of whom have secrets, of course), and the book's denouement is both wildly surprising and revealing about the transformative power of appearances.
The Cutting Season by Attica Locke
This murder mystery (or should I say murder mysteries, as it involves two different cases) jumps back and forth across time, taking place in Louisiana on the site of historic house Belle Vie, both in the present day, when the grounds are used for weddings and banquets, and the past, when Belle Vie was an active slavery-run plantation. Not only does author Attica Locke (who is a writer and producer for the TV show Empire) know how to drive a compelling plot and balance the demands of two different but ultimately intertwined storylines, but she also is not afraid to make the vital connections between our nation's horrific past and the problematic present we still find ourselves in today.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
There's no doubt that Sarah Waters is one of the finest mystery writers working today, and Fingersmith is a prime example of her skills. Taking place from the point of views of several different characters, Waters' finely wrought plot makes it impossible for readers to ever fully get a grasp on the slippery workings of the intriguing, impossible women who drive this story. The narrative revolves around plots to swindle people out of fortunes, lock them away in mental asylums, seductions, betrayals, and abandonments; it's kind of all you want in a page-turner—and more. Oh, and once you read this book, IMMEDIATELY go see the incredible film loosely based on this novel, Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden. It's, well, everything.
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
Is there anything more twisted than the inner workings of the mind of ambitious young women? I mean, yeah, sure, probably, but that's not the point right now. Megan Abbott's stellar book centers around Devon Knox, a teenage competitive gymnast whose sights are set firmly on Olympic gold. The book takes place from the point of view of Devon's mother, who's no less goal-oriented than her daughter—or wasn't until she realizes her whole life has been built around her adolescent child's career, and that life is slowly but surely starting to fall apart. Oh, and did I mention there's a murder, an illicit affair, a hair-pulling fight in a gym locker room, and a leotard set on fire? Yeah, there's all of that too
Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
Soon to be released as a movie starring Amandla Stenberg, Nicola Yoon's beloved YA novel isn't a murder mystery like most of the other books on this list, but that doesn't mean it isn't any less compelling, or any less full of dynamic twists and turns. Rather than revolve around deviousness and decay, though, Everything, Everything is a page-turner that serves more as an affirmation of life and its possibilities—some of which lead to destruction, yes, and even death. But, hey, none of us are getting out of here alive anyway, so we might as well live to the fullest while we're here.
Big Little Lies by Lianne Moriarty
I'm just going to assume you're all as obsessed with HBO's Big Little Lies as I am, and so I don't think it's going to be that difficult to convince you to read the novel upon which it's based. But just in case you need convincing: This tightly paced novel is full of the darkest of issues—abusive relationships, sexual assault, murder, helicopter parents—and author Lianne Moriarty never drops any of the many narrative threads as she weaves this complex story with more compelling leads than you can almost count. It's also often incredibly funny, and even if you won't be able to read it without picturing Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Zoe Kravitz, Shailene Woodley, and Laura Dern in all their roles, that's okay, because they're all so perfectly cast.
Atonement by Ian McEwen
This is the oldest novel on the list, but I had to include it, because it's the first book I ever read where, at its end, I threw it down and said, "No!" And I said it loud, like really, really loud. Because this ending caught me completely off-guard and changed the way that I read books and trusted authors to take care of me and not, you know, completely screw with my brain and sense of narrative justice. I don't want to say too much about it; you should read it because Ian McEwen is a masterful writer, and this tale of love, betrayal, and war was an instant classic upon publication (the movie is only... okay; obviously anything with Vanessa Redgrave is gold, but it's still nothing compared to the novel). So read this, and scream into your pillow when you realize that the insane injustices of the world do not only emanate from the White House, but also from the works of some of our favorite authors.