Please welcome new author Lisa Unger, creator of the breakout thriller, Beautiful Lies, positively one of the best reads of the year, and also Doubleday Entertainment's New International Book-of-the-Month Selection!
Publisher: Shaye Areheart Books ISBN: 0307336689
Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader
Thirty- something freelance writer Ridley Jones couldn't be much happier, with close family ties, a hip career, and a funky apartment in New York's East Village, her life is filled with contentment and peace. Until the fateful day she saves a child from a speeding truck, and the media splashes her face throughout the city. Being contacted by a stranger who claims she's his daughter is only the beginning in a series of events that will challenge every truth she's ever known, destroy her trust and faith in everyone she's ever loved, and threaten her very existence. Joining with a man she has just met but with whom she's already falling in love, the two will attempt to uncover the secrets and lies that have made up her life. But he has some secrets of his own, and as events grow increasingly dangerous, Ridley will have to decide just who to trust, because someone wants her dead, and it's someone closer than she thinks.
If you only read one book this year, make it this one. As one who reads perhaps hundreds of titles a year, it's not easy to be utterly blown away by an author's work, no matter how good….but this one has managed that and more. It's not only the suspense that's first rate, but also Unger's total ability to connect with the reader emotionally and intellectually with an extraordinary immediacy that feels heartbreakingly real. You'll find yourself reading certain passages again and again, just to savor the poignant insight and emotional truth of what is shared through the eyes of this most wonderful of characters. One of the most captivating and thrilling novels that I've ever had the joy to read, this magical book is truly a gift coming from an amazing new author whose entry into our world we loudly applaud.
1. Where did you get the idea for your story?
LU: I was in a weird place when I began writing BEAUTIFUL LIES. My husband and I were seriously thinking about starting a family. And I was doing a lot of soul-searching about my own upbringing, wondering what I want to bring forward and what I wanted to leave behind. I was considering what it took to be a great parent and wondering if I could be that for a child. So, while I was in this head, I got a flier in the mail. One of those “Have you seen this child?” mailers. It featured an age-graduated photograph of a little girl. I had this thought: What if I looked at this flier and recognized myself? The plot spun out from there.
2. Everyone asks themselves what they might have been had they made a different choice; taken a left instead of a right, left the house a second later, taken physics instead of chemistry. How did this infinite possibility of events and consequences affect the progression of your plot?
Well, I write without an outline and really have very little idea how the story will end when I first begin writing. So everyday I make choices in plot progression. But oddly, many of those choices feel unconscious. I am often surprised by what happens in my fictional worlds. Sometimes my characters make choices that I didn’t anticipate … and of which I don’t always approve! My husband will come home from work and I’ll say, “You’ll never believe what happened today!”
But that’s life, right? We never know what choices we’ll make until the moment is upon us … which is why I can’t work from an outline. It would be like trying to tell someone about my day before it’s happened. I have to live it first. I didn’t know what would happen to Ridley when she walked onto the corner of First and Eleventh. I didn’t know what she’d do when she saw Jake’s note and wine glasses by the door. I didn’t know anything until I’d written it. But that’s part of the excitement, the joy of it for me. I write for the same reason that I read, because I want to know what’s going to happen. So, there are choices to be made every day … they’re just not always mine.
3. You make a point that family is not so much blood, as it is experiences….yet it is this very conflict that drives these characters to such extremes, begging the question, why is the need to know one's biological roots still so important to those who are missing this knowledge?
Because as much as I believe that it’s experience that shapes us and binds us, there’s a bit of mystery to each of us, as well. Those strands of DNA have quite a bit to say about who we are and how our experiences impact us. That’s part of the drive, I’m sure. It’s a need to understand ourselves, the nature and the nurture.
Maybe even more than that, most of us have a critical need to feel that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves, that we belong somewhere. When we’re not sure who we came from, who our parents are, we’re deprived of something basic, the idea that we’re part of a family. Of course, sometimes we wish we weren’t a part of the family into which we were born. But there’s still a comfort in knowing where we’ve come from, even if only to know where we want to go from there.
I think both of these things are major drivers for Ridley, who like you say, jeopardized every pretty thing about her life to know the truth. She tells us that the universe doesn’t like secrets; that it conspires to reveal the truth. Ridley chooses to follow the path laid out before her somewhat reluctantly … it’s almost as if she gets pushed along by unseen forces. At certain points, she wants to turn back. She just can’t “go dark again,” which I think is understandable. If you knew that you might not be who you thought you were, if your parents might not be your parents, could you close your eyes and never ask the questions? I know I couldn’t.
4. Your story concerns issues of child neglect, abuse, etc….focusing on a time when society for the most part downplayed such issues. Do you feel things have improved, not from so much a legal or societal responsibility perspective, but from understanding what often leads to such conditions? Do you think an entity such as "Project Rescue" could exist in today's climate?
In some ways, conditions have definitely improved. I see evidence that people are evolving. And there’s so much more information about child development, parenting --even just on how to be happy in general. The happier people are, the more able to confront and heal from abuse in their past, the better parents they will be. They’re less likely to bring the abuse forward to a new generation. Because there’s more information people have more opportunities to treat their children well.
Could something like Project Rescue exist today? I know that children are abducted all over the world. I know that women and girls are abducted and sold into sexual slavery. That’s an organized and profitable enterprise where children are bought and sold. Even though there are no illusions that it’s in the best interest of the children, it’s not so different from Project Rescue. Whether you’ve abducted a possibly abused child and sold her to a wealthy couple … or whether you’ve bought a girl from her destitute family in the third world and sold her into a life of sexual slavery … you’ve still treated a child like a piece of merchandise, you’ve committed a terrible crime against her spirit. So I think, yes, it could happen and it does.
5. You deal very honestly with the concept of "choices" in regard to the quality of one's life, while also recognizing the potentially devastating impact of the lack of resources and support many encounter; how is your character, coming from such a privileged background, able to reconcile and grasp these seemingly contradictory concepts?
One word answer: empathy. Ridley comes from a background of privilege, that’s true. But it doesn’t mean necessarily that she can’t understand the true nature of poverty – financial and emotional. We all have choices. Some of us have fewer choices to be sure. Our choices are all informed by different experiences, some of them terrible. But understanding that is the key to understanding people. Ridley has a compassionate spirit. And she’s a writer, which means she’s an observer, as well. These two things enable her to grasp concepts which are out of her experience.
6. Your love for New York feels like a character within itself, how much of this is real?
It’s totally real. I have had a love affair with New York City my entire life. And I lived there for thirteen years. During that time, I lived or worked in virtually every neighborhood in the city. When I left, I was burned out in the extreme on the city, feeling like it took everything I had to live there … all my energy, all my money. I was ready to go. It was years later that I started to feel the love again. When I write about the city now, I can hear it, smell it, feel the concrete beneath my feet. The old excitement I had about it as a kid returned as I wrote BEAUTIFUL LIES.
The apartment where Ridley lives is where I lived in the East Village. I smelled pastry and pizza all day. The floor sagged; my bed often rolled into the middle of the room while I slept. At one point, I lived up in Riverdale across from Van Cortlandt Park. I have had more funny, miserable, scary moments on the subways than I can count. All of these experiences found their way into BEAUTIFUL LIES.
These days New York City feels like an old flame. I think of it fondly, toy with the idea of returning someday, but every time I go back I remember why I left.
7. Ridley, one of the most heartbreakingly realistic characters put on paper, seems so 3-dimensionally honest and sincere, one has to ask, how much of she is you?
There’s a lot of me in Ridley. But she’s not me. She’s much more naïve, slightly more daring, perhaps a little more prone to denial. But many her observations about life, love, family and the things that bind us are close to my ideas on those subjects. When I first started hearing her voice, I thought, ‘Wow. I could be friends with this person.’ So I was very invested in how things turned out for her. I felt close to her, as though she were someone with whom I might talk on the phone or meet for drinks. She’s very real to me; maybe that’s why she’s real to readers.
8. Most new authors don't receive the type of acclaim that you have just coming out of the gate. Are you surprised, or did you know after writing that final page that this was something special?
BEAUTIFUL LIES felt very special, very personal to me. It was different from anything I’d written. And I hoped that it would resonate with someone who would give it a wonderful home. Beyond that, I didn’t know how readers would respond. It’s not really a literary novel, or a mystery, or a love story; but it’s a little of all of those things. There’s no true villain. The ending is not easy. So I just wasn’t sure if any one would connect with it.
Sally Kim, my editor at Shaye Areheart Books, fell in love with Ridley and the book. And, honestly, I believe her enthusiasm for BEAUTIFUL was the well-spring from which all the wonderful things that have happened for the book have flowed.
I know I wrote the best book I could write at that point in my life. And every day I try to be a better writer than I was yesterday. That’s part of it. But I know that the energy from everyone at Shaye Areheart/ Crown has been critical in getting it out there and into the hands of readers. BEAUTIFUL LIES really seems to resonate with people. I am surprised, yes. And thrilled, of course!
9. At what age did you write your first story, and what was it about?
I can’t even remember a time when I didn’t write, so I’m not sure what my first story was. But I know my first endeavor as a writer was poetry. Truly awful, maudlin stuff. I wrote a lot of short stories in high school and won a partial scholarship for one of them. In college I wrote more short stories, plays, articles for the school paper. And at nineteen I started my first novel, which I finished ten short years later.
10. Most writers also have a love affair with reading in addition to writing, were there any authors in particular who inspired you to make that leap from reading to writing?
That is so true. I have always been a voracious reader with really eclectic tastes. As a kid I read anything I could get my hands on from the classics to popular fiction, from science fiction to mystery. It’s nearly impossible to list the authors who have inspired me or where I made the mental leap from being immersed in fictional worlds to understanding that I could create them. But among my favorite authors are: Truman Capote, Jane Austen, Gabriele Garcia Marquez, Keri Hulme, John Irving, Steven King, Daphne DuMaurier, Wilkie Collins … I really could go on for days.
11. And, finally, your website thankfully mentions that you will be bringing Ridley back, which is wonderful news to those of us who have had the pleasure of getting to know her. Any ideas you'd like to share on what her next adventure might be?
All I can say is that when I closed the book on Ridley, I thought we were done …that she was okay and that it was time for me to move on. After a while I started to realize that there was a lot more to say. All the elements of the sequel have their shape in BEAUTIFUL LIES. So stay tuned!
LISA UNGER was born in Hartford, Connecticut, but grew up in Holland, England, and New Jersey. A graduate of the New School for Social Research, Unger spent many years living and working in New York City. In 2000, she left a career in publicity to pursue her dream of becoming a full-time writer. She and her husband and daughter now live in Florida, where she’s at work on the sequel to Beautiful Lies.