Book Review: A Flaw in the Design by Nathan Oates

Terrifying, twisted, and full of suspense.

Nathan Oates is the author of the novel, A Flaw in the Design, and the short story collection, The Empty House. His stories have appeared in numerous magazines, including The Missouri Review, The Antioch Review, and the Alaska Quarterly Review. His stories have been anthologized in The Best American Mystery Stories (2008 and 2012) and Forty Stories (Harper Perennial). He teaches creative writing at Seton Hall University and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

I can’t believe this is a debut novel. This story tapped into one of my deepest fears and hooked me from beginning to end. Very rarely does a book compel me to keep reading past midnight. It checked all the boxes and I flew through it, savoring every scene. The characters were compelling, and the dialogue was so well-written it was enviable. It was expertly paced, and completely immersive, making it a satisfying read from beginning to end.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit I enjoy reading about psychology in my spare timemore specifically, abnormal psychology. While reading this book I was impressed at how Oates expertly applied psychopathic personality traits to Matthew, the nephew of Gil, the story’s protagonist, portraying his erratic childhood behavior, callousness, and glib demeanor as an adolescent. The psychological effects he had on everyone around him as they fell for his charm, but in particular the emotional discord it caused Gil felt very authentic. Gil’s paranoia became more evident as he began following Matthew around, convinced he was responsible for the tragic deaths of his sister and brother in law (Matthew’s parents). It was very chilling to learn of their family history, and Matthew’s unstable childhood, especially when applying it to the present timeline in which he mostly portrays a cool exterior, occasionally revealing his true nature when his ‘mask’ slipsas observed by Gil on a couple of occasions.

I’m a sucker for these types of books and thoroughly enjoy stories set between New York City and sleepy suburbs in the northeast. I was immediately immersed in both worlds, curious by the stark comparison between the lavish lifestyle Matthew and his parents led in New York City, and Gil’s humble (and somewhat estranged) existence living and teaching as a professor in Vermont. The threat of Matthew’s character was constant, creating an impending doom as I tried to figure out his next moves and motives before it was too late. The last three chapters had me on edge and when I finally thought all hope was lost, that last page left me feeling optimistic that Gil might finally see justice done. Even if it would have to be in my own imaginings.


For readers who enjoy literary thrillers, suspense, compelling characters, and dark psychological themes.

Published March 21st, 2023


The cleverest psychopaths hide in plain sight.

Gil is living a quiet life as a creative writing professor in a bucolic Vermont town, when he receives some shocking news: His sister and her husband have been killed in a car accident, and their only son is coming to live with him and his family.
Gil and his wife are apprehensive about taking in seventeen-year-old Matthew. Yes, he has just lost both his parents, but they haven’t seen him in seven years—and the last time the families were together, Matthew lured their young daughter into a terrifying, life-threatening situation. Since that incident, Gil has been estranged from his sister and her flashy, wealthy banker husband. 

Now Matthew is their charge, living under their roof.
The boy seems charming, smart, and urbane, if strangely unaffected by his parents’ deaths. Gil hopes they can put the past behind them, though he’s surprised when Matthew signs up for his creative writing class. Then Matthew begins turning in chilling stories about the imagined deaths of Gil’s family and his own parents. Bewildered and panicked, Gil ultimately decides he must take matters into his own hands—before life imitates art.

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