“Searing, searching, finally scorching. Think Making a Murderer via Patricia Highsmith: an elegant kaleidoscope novel that refines and combines multiple perspectives until its subject is brought into indelible, tragic focus.” —A. J. Finn, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Woman in the Window
“Pitch-black and superbly written.” —Ruth Ware, New York Times bestselling author of The Woman in Cabin 10
“Top-notch grip lit…incredibly brilliant.” —Marian Keyes, New York Times bestselling author
Oliver Ryan has the perfect life. Elegant and seductive, he wants for nothing, sharing a lovely home with his steadfast wife, Alice, who illustrates the award-winning children’s books that have brought him wealth and fame. Until one evening, after eating the dinner Alice has carefully prepared, Oliver savagely assaults her and leaves her for dead.
The people who know Oliver can only speculate about the reasons behind his brutal act: his empty-headed mistress Moya, vain and petulant; Veronique, the French chatelaine who tragically lost everything the summer she employed him in her vineyard; Alice’s friend Barney, who has nursed an unrequited love for her since childhood; Oliver’s college pal Michael, struggling with voiceless longings that have shamed him for years. What none of them understands is the dark secret that lies behind his immaculate façade.
The revelations that come to light as the layers of Oliver’s past are peeled away are as brutal as his singular act of violence. His decades of careful deception have masked a life irrevocably marked by abandonment, envy, and shame—and as the details of that life are laid bare, Oliver discovers that outrunning his demons is harder than it looks.
With its insight into the mind of a psychopath emerging from the wreckage of his own misbegotten past, Unraveling Oliver is a chilling page-turner, brilliantly crafted and unexpectedly moving, by a stunning new voice in fiction. Liz Nugent "presents a fresh look at a man hiding his violent personality in this intense character study" (Publishers Weekly, starred review). As powerful as Patricia Highsmith’s unforgettable noir classic, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Unraveling Oliver will enthrall you from its mesmerizing opening line to its equally shocking last page.
This readers group guide for Unraveling Oliver includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book
Oliver Ryan, also known as the celebrated children’s book author Vincent Dax, is handsome, charismatic, and successful. Oliver’s stories are an international publishing sensation and illustrated by his devoted wife and professional partner, Alice. Their life together is one of enviable privilege and ease—until, one evening after a delightful dinner, Oliver delivers a blow to Alice that renders her unconscious and subsequently beats her into a coma.
In the aftermath of such an unthinkable event, as Alice hovers between life and death, the couple’s friends, neighbors, and acquaintances try to understand what could have driven Oliver to commit such a horrific act. Oliver’s story unfolds in a psychological study of his mysterious past; the layers are peeled away to reveal a life of shame, envy, deception, and masterful manipulation.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Is Oliver a reliable narrator? Do you trust him more or less as a narrator as you learn more about him throughout the novel? Why?
2. Consider this passage from Oliver’s narration: “Apparently, you are supposed to learn the facts of life and the etiquette of how to treat women from your mother, or, failing that, your father. I learned instead by osmosis” (p. 31). What does Oliver fail to learn in his childhood about how to treat women?
3. How does the chorus of narrators bring Oliver’s character into focus? Is there any narrator that you would have liked to hear more from? Whose story isn’t represented among the narrators?
4. Why does Oliver not want to have children? Does his reason for not wanting children change throughout the book?
5. How might things have turned out differently for the characters of the novel if Barney hadn’t encouraged Alice to go away to a Greek island with Oliver? Do you think Oliver and Alice would have still gotten together? Why or why not?
6. Do you think Philip and Oliver’s father, Francis, was a good father to Philip? Was he capable of being a good father?
7. Family means very different things to Madame Véronique and her father, Monsieur d’Aigse, than the conservative Irish in the book. Why does Véronique choose to have Jean-Luc out of wedlock? Consider how Oliver’s father, Laura, Oliver, and others would have approached the same situation.
8. Oliver says he truly felt like a father to Jean-Luc. Do you think Oliver knows what a father is supposed to be? Does he know what being a father is supposed to feel like? Why or why not?
9. Why do you think Laura and Oliver’s relationship disintegrates? What role do the events of the summer in Bordeaux play? What role does Oliver himself play?
10. Oliver laments, “How could I even begin to explain that I only meant to be a hero, and not a murderer?” (p. 231). Do you believe him? Why or why not? Does he take responsibility for his actions?
11. Many of the parents (Mrs. O’Reilly, Monsieur d’Aigse, the Condells) in the book are only trying to guide their children into fruitful relationships, safe marriages. Who is successful at this end?
12. Father Daniel tells Oliver the story of his mother, the little that he knows. Does that make a difference? Does Oliver believe him? Would you have believed Father Daniel’s story?
13. Madame Véronique and Alice both discover the secret of Oliver’s locked box. Did you guess his secret? Why do you think Oliver did what he did?
14. Which characters are ultimately undone by family secrets? Could any of them have been saved by forgiveness? Who, and why?
15. What lengths will Oliver go to in order to protect his secrets? Does he make the right choice in keeping his final secret in the epilogue? Is that his redemption? Why or why not?
16. Do you think Oliver would have grown up to be a monster if he had a normal childhood? At what point did his life turn bad? Which decisions could he have made differently?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The Prince Sparkle stories make Oliver, aka Vincent Dax, an international publishing sensation. Some say that they are metaphors for good and evil, allegorical references to the tragedies of WWII. Who would the main character be in your own illustrated series for children? What lessons or morals would you want to teach to children?
2. Unraveling Oliver won the Crime Fiction prize in the 2014 Irish Book Awards. Explore other Irish crime novels, such as Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series or John Connolly’s Every Dead Thing, with your book club and compare similar themes between the books.
3. Unraveling Oliver is Liz Nugent’s first novel. Learn more about the author by visiting her website (http://www.liznugent.ie/), and following her on Twitter @lizzienugent.
4. If Alice were to narrate a chapter, what do you think she would have to say?
Liz Nugent has worked in Irish film, theater, and television for most of her adult life. She is an award-winning writer of radio and television drama and has written critically acclaimed short stories both for children and adults, as well as the novels Unraveling Oliver and Lying in Wait. She lives in Dublin. Visit her at LizNugent.ie or follow her on Twitter at @Lizzienugent.