If Ridley Jones had slept ten minutes later or had taken the subway instead of waiting for a cab, she would still be living the beautiful lie she used to call her life. She would still be the privileged daughter of a doting father and a loving mother. Her life would still be perfect -- with only the tiny cracks of an angry junkie for a brother and a charming drunk with shady underworld connections for an uncle to mar the otherwise flawless whole.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, those inconsequential decisions lead her to perform a good deed that puts her in the right place at the right time to unleash a chain of events that brings a mysterious package to her door -- a package which informs her that her entire world is a lie.
Suddenly forced to question everything she knows about herself and her family, Ridley wanders into dark territory she never knew existed, where everyone in her life seems like a stranger. She has no idea who’s on her side and who has something to hide -- even, and maybe especially, her new lover, Jake, who appears to have secrets of his own.
Sexy and fast-paced, Beautiful Lies is a true literary thriller with one of the freshest voices and heroines to arrive in years. Lisa Unger takes us on a breathtaking ride in which every choice Ridley makes creates a whirlwind of consequences that are impossible to imagine . . . .
About the Author
Lisa Unger is an award-winning New York Times and international bestselling author. Her novels have sold over 1 million copies in the U.S. and have been translated into 26 different languages.
Read an Excerpt
Beautiful LiesA Novel
By Lisa Unger
Shaye Areheart BooksCopyright © 2006 Lisa Unger
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt's dark in that awful way that allows you to make out objects but not the black spaces behind them. My breathing comes ragged from exertion and fear. The only person I trust in the world lies on the floor beside me. I lean into him and hear that he's still breathing but it's shallow and hard won. He's hurt, I know. But I can't see how badly. I whisper his name in his ear but he doesn't respond. I feel his body but there's no blood that I can tell. The sound of his body hitting the floor minutes before was the worst thing I've ever heard.
I feel the floor around him, looking for his gun. After a few seconds I feel the cool metal beneath my fingertips and I almost weep with relief. But there's no time for that now.
I can hear the rain falling outside the burned-out building, its loud, heavy drops smacking on canvas. It's falling inside, too, trickling in through gaping holes in the roof down through floors of rotted wood and broken staircases. He moves and issues a low groan. I hear him say my name and I lean in close to him again.
"It's okay. We're going to be okay," I tell him, even though I don't have any reason to believe this is true. Somewhere outside or up above us a man I thought I loved, along with other men whom I couldn't identify,are trying to kill us, to protect an awful truth that I've discovered. I am hurt myself, in so much pain that I might pass out if I didn't know it meant dying here in this condemned building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There's something embedded in my right thigh. It's possibly a bullet, or a large spike of wood, or maybe a nail. It's so dark I can just barely see the large hole in my jeans, and the denim is black with my blood. I'm dizzy, the world tilting, but I'm holding on.
I hear them up above us now, see the beams of their flashlights crossing in the dark through the holes in the floors. I try to control my breathing, which to my own ears sounds as loud as an oncoming train. I hear one of the men say to the others, "I think they fell through. They're on the bottom." There was no answer but I can hear them making their way down over creaking wood.
He stirs. "They're coming," he says, his voice little more than a rasp. "Get out of here, Ridley."
I don't answer him. We both know I'm not leaving. I pull at him and he tries to get up, but the pain registers on his face louder than the scream I know he suppressed to protect us for a few minutes more. If we're not walking out of here together, we're not walking out at all. I drag him, even though I know I shouldn't be moving him, over behind an old moldy couch that lies on its back by the wall. It's not far but I can see his face white and gritted in terrible pain. As I move him, he loses consciousness again and in an instant feels fifty pounds heavier. But I've seen all four of his limbs move and that's something. I realize that I'm praying as I pull him, my leg on fire, my strength waning. Please God, please God, please God, over and over again like a mantra.
The way the couch is lying, it forms a crawl space against the wall just big enough for the two of us. I pull him in there and lie on my belly beside him. I pull an old crate over toward the edge of the couch and look through the wooden slats. They're closer now and I'm sure they've heard us because they've stopped talking and turned their flashlights off. I hold the gun in both hands and wait. I've never fired a gun before and I don't know how many bullets are left in this one. I think we're going to die here.
"Ridley, please, don't do this." The voice echoes in the dark and comes from up above me. "We can work this out."
I don't answer. I know it's a trick. Nothing about this can be worked out now; we're all too far gone. There have been plenty of chances to close my eyes and go back to the sleep of my life as it was, but I haven't taken any of them. Do I wish now that I had? It's hard to answer that question, as the wraiths move closer.
"Six," he whispers.
"You have six bullets left."
Excerpted from Beautiful Lies by Lisa Unger Copyright © 2006 by Lisa Unger. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide
“Suspenseful, sensitive, sexy, subtle. The best nail-biter I have read for ages.” —Lee Child
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enhance your group's discussion of Lisa Unger's debut novel, Beautiful Lies.
1. One of the novel's main themes is choice, and how both big choices and little ones can have a profound impact on a person's life. Did Ridley have a choice in finding out the truth about her past? If she'd chosen to ignore the first picture and note, could she have avoided all the questions and secrets that arose?
2. Would it have been possible for Ridley to ignore the events of the past and still have developed a true sense of self? Would you be able to?
3. On page 17, Ridley says, “Freedom, I'd have to say, is probably the most important thing to me, more important than youth, beauty, fame, money.” Does this freedom Ridley craves influence the lies she's been told to her entire life? Or is this freedom what could have protected her from asking questions about her past?
4. Throughout the story, the author compares Jake to Zack. Are there any similarities between the two men? In the beginning, what does Ridley admire about each of them?
5. Why did Jake keep the truth from Ridley for so long? Would it have been easier to tell her who he was from the start? Would she have believed him? Would you?
6. The author brings up the idea of parental (and adult) control over children, even after these children have grown up. Is there a control parents will always have over their child? Or at some point is control relinquished to the child to live his/her own life? How could Ridley's parents have handled the situation differently? Would it have worked?
7. On page 58, Ridley says, “When you love someone, it doesn't really matter if they love you back or not. Having love in your heart for someone is its own reward. Or punishment, depending on the circumstances.” By the end of the novel, has Ridley's view of her family and Jake altered this idea of love? How has it altered? If her family and Jake followed the same definition of love, would their views have been changed by the events of the story?
8. What do you think of the nature of Project Rescue before Teresa Stone's murder? Was there another or better way to protect children from abuse or neglect? What do you think of the systems in place to protect children today in your own society?
9. Do you believe Ridley's father and Max should both be penalized or blamed for what happened? What about Ridley's mother and Ace? Did any of these people have a responsibility to tell Ridley what happened to her? Why or why not?
10. If you were Jake or Ridley, would you have looked into all the cases of missing children, as they did, or would you have focused solely on finding the truth of your own past? What was to gain by looking at all the cases? Could they have found the truth about their own life without looking at the others?
11. Do you think Ace's drug addiction and problems with his parents were related to Ridley's history, which he overheard their father and Max discussing one day? How do you think Ridley would have handled the truth had she been told by her parents instead of finding out the way she did?
12. On page 298, Ridley says, “I was operating under a faith that the universe conspires to reveal the truth, that lies are unstable elements that tend toward breaking down.” Do you think the truth would have revealed itself to Ridley without Jake's involvement? Would it have been easier or more difficult to take without Jake?
13. On page 436, Ridley asks, “Isn't that so often true with family, that we see them through the filters of our own fears, expectations, and desire to control?” How does this apply to each of her family members? How is it affected by the truth that's come out, and how will it affect their relationships moving forward? Can Ridley, or anyone, project fear, expectation, or desire to control onto how she views anyone else now?
14. By the end of the story, what do you think of Zack's and Esme's role in Project Rescue? Was it right for Esme to help Max as she did because of her love for him?
15. On page 437, Ridley says, “We don't have control, we have choices.” And on page 439, she says, “In life, there are only good and bad choices. And sometimes even choices can only be judged by their consequences. And sometimes not even then.” Is it really as simple as a matter of choice? How would any of the characters agree or disagree with these ideas?
16. When Ridley confronts Jake on the Brooklyn Bridge, she wants to know how he found her to begin with. He tells her that he saw her picture in the Post, just like Christian Luna. Can this be the truth? Or is Jake hiding more than Ridley ever realizes even as the book ends?
Ransom Notes Interview with Lisa Unger
Paul Goat Allen: Lisa, I heard that the initial creative spark for Beautiful Lies came from an unlikely place -- a missing child flier. Is this true and, if so, can you explain?
Lisa Unger: It's true. I received one of those "Have you seen …" fliers in the mail. It featured the picture of a man and an age-graduated photograph of a young girl. I was in a really weird place at the time in my own life. My husband and I were thinking about having children, and I was taking a hard look at myself, wondering what it takes to be a good parent. And something about that mailer just struck me, the idea that this child had been lost ten years ago and never found. How does that happen? What must that be like to never know what happened to your child? My writer's brain ran away with it. Then I had this idea: What if I looked at one of those fliers and recognized myself? Beautiful Lies spun out from that point...
PGA: One of the things that struck me while reading Beautiful Lies was its overpowering -- for lack of a better term -- sensory immersion. The sights and sounds and smells of the East Village, Ridley's vivid memories of her childhood (like the smell of her brother's shampoo and her mother's perfume) were so powerful, so genuine, I felt like I was right there in Ridley's shoes. When you first began writing Beautiful Lies, did you know that the novel was going to so -- intimate?
LU: That's quite a compliment. Thank you. I strive to write from the inside out. I put myself there and live in the narrative, rather than hover above, observe, and report. Life is a sensory experience, so writing needs to be as well. The relationship between author and narrative is an intimate one. That intimacy, that vulnerability, that laying bare hopefully invites the reader into the relationship and allows him to come inside and really be a part of it, too. We all have these "sense memories" -- a scent or a strain of music can bring us back to certain moments in our lives. We can relate to that in Ridley, which I think makes us feel very close to her.
PGA: Another noteworthy component of Beautiful Lies was your brilliantly realistic character development. As you stated in the novel, there are no heroes or villains in real life, "only good and bad choices." Numerous characters are firmly entrenched in that gray area between moral black and white -- Ridley's heroin-addicted brother Ace, her well-to-do parents, her carousing Uncle Max, her former boyfriend Zachary, etc. Was having no clear villain a conscious decision on your part?
LU: I don't know how much of the process is conscious for me. The craft is conscious, of course. But so much of what happens in my narratives seems not to be a choice on my part. That said, I've always felt that there's something flat about the creation of a villain who is pitted against the hero or heroine, something "off" when there's one clearly good and one clearly bad character. Sure, the hero might be interestingly flawed, or the villain might have some redeeming quality but in a lot of fiction, things can seem pretty black-and-white. I don't see that many pure villains or heroes in the world. I see people who make a lot of bad decisions and people who usually make good ones. I see people who for whatever reason cause a lot of pain. I see people who for whatever reason seek to help and do for others. Obviously, we can all point to someone we view as inherently good or bad. But people are so much more textured than that; there are myriad reasons why people turn out the way they do. Since this is my general view of the world, I guess it was natural that there be no real villain in Beautiful Lies, just a collection of people who have made a series of choices…some of them good, some of them terrible, all of them with dramatic consequences.
PGA: On your web site (www.lisaunger.com), you talk about how being a full-time writer has always been a dream of yours. How does it feel to know that your first novel is a blockbuster hardcover release with overwhelmingly positive pre-press buzz? And what advice would you give to aspiring writers?
LU: A release like this is every author's dream. The team at Shaye Areheart/ Crown…well, they're just rock stars. You can write a great book (and even have it published), but without the support of your publisher, it might disappear on the shelves. I'm more grateful than I can say for all the excitement and enthusiasm. It's been a long and sometimes painful road to this place, so I think I'm enjoying it even more because of that. My advice to aspiring writers is to write every day with the goal of being a better writer than you were yesterday, to write with joy and passion for the craft. With some talent, some luck, and sheer never-say-die tenacity you can get where you want to go.
PGA: What's the next literary project on the docket for Lisa Unger?
LU: I've just completed the sequel to Beautiful Lies, tentatively titled Sliver of Truth, which will release in 2007. As soon as I return from my book tour, I'll get to work on my next novel, the idea for which is already simmering.