A Flaw in the Design by Nathan Oates

A Flaw in the DesignA Flaw in the Design by Nathan Oates
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In this umpteenth take on the unreliable narrator shtick we hear the voice of Gil, a professor of creative writing at a not-so-prestigious Vermont college. Gil and his wife Molly are struggling financially and his writing career is going nowhere. Suddenly Gil’s obscenely rich sister and her husband are killed in a car crash and the will names Gil as the guardian of their son Matthew, at that point 17 years old and finishing his senior year at a prep school. Gil despises Matthew for reasons hinted at but not immediately revealed, but he feels a duty to his sister and the job comes with a healthy stipend for expenses, so he and Molly agree.

Matthew was, when Gil last knew him, a foul-mouthed, spoiled, selfish little brat. There was a dark incident that is finally explained about page 50. Note to author: why wait? Either tell it right up front or save as a big reveal at the end. Why hint at something you’re about to reveal in a few pages? But I digress. When we learn of it, it is not clear whether Matthew did something evil or was otherwise at fault. Gil may even have been more responsible, especially since the story is told from his viewpoint with his assumptions and conclusions about what happened.

Now, years after that incident, Matthew settles in with Gil and Molly and Gil becomes increasingly paranoid about having him in the house. Every time Matthew smiles, Gil sees an evil smirk. Every time Matthew helps Gil’s daughters, his cousins, Gil sees it as an attempt to weasel his way into their confidence in order to set up some nefarious deed later. Molly and the girls think Matthew is nice and Gil is overreacting, judging him based on a childhood incident. The money he brings is certainly welcome. Then there’s a police investigation into the fatal crash, but we’re not told much about it. Matthew also manages to gain entrance to Gil’s creative writing class. The stories he writes Gil finds disturbing, taunting, while other students and Molly think they’re harmless fiction. Gil becomes increasingly unhinged. The story becomes a psychological mystery. Is Gil going crazy and persecuting his innocent nephew? Is Matthew secretly building a plot against Gil?

I like the basic plot setup to this point, although I’m tired of the unreliable narrator hook. I did keep reading to the end and enjoyed it enough to give it the three stars, but I found Gil to be too unreliable through the latter pages. In plain language, the author overdid it. Gil just seemed wacko, even though Matthew clearly showed himself to still be a foul-mouthed entitled brat at times. Neither garners our sympathy, which means it’s easy to lose interest in the outcome. Still, it was cleverly written with enough suspense building after the slow beginning. I did foresee the twist at the very end, which usually gives me triumphant satisfaction with the ending, but in this case I did not find it fulfilling.

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