All good things must come to an end, even books. What happens when that end disappoints? If you were a fan of the show Lost, you know what I mean.
For the most recent meeting of my book club, we read All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood. We have a consistent format at my book club, which I like. We don’t just dive straight into the discussion. We like to hear everyone’s opinions. So we always start the discussion with a round robin approach where each person takes a turn proving her opinion on the book.
It’s not often that I don’t have a clear opinion on a book. But at this last book club meeting when it came to me and I had to say whether or not I liked the book, I stammered and stumbled through an explanation, finally settling on “No.” To sum up my thoughts, I thought the story was interesting. I liked that it challenged my view of the world, all good books should. So why didn’t I like it then? It was the ending. It didn’t work for me and that ruined the rest of the book.
It can happen the other way around as well. I can slug through a book only to find that the end makes it all worth it and I end up loving the book after all. (Life of Pi is a great example of that.) These slow burn type of books have a pay off that makes the journey worth it. But when I invest in characters and their growth just to find at the end the story doesn’t live up to the rest of the book, that can make the whole journey feel not worth the trip.
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things isn’t alone in this situation. I find that there are patterns to disappointing endings. Here are few.
The Cop Out
Before reality TV, before Game of Thrones and binge watching, there was Dallas. It was probably one of the most popular TV shows of the 80s and fodder for much water cooler talk in the office. The nighttime soap opera once famously killed off a character and then brought him back after an entire season had elapsed. How? The show decided to make the entire previous season a dream. To say this did not go over well with fans might be an understatement.
But Dallas was just taking a cue from a famous book with a similar cop out ending – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice has crazy adventures after following a rabbit down a hole and then just wakes up? Really? That’s a disappointing ending.
Sometimes book endings are disappointing because they don’t give us what we want and sometimes it’s just the opposite. Book endings can disappoint when they give us exactly what we want, or rather what we expect. When a book sticks so closely to a formula that it’s predictable or repetitive, that can lead to a disappointing ending.
This will probably be an unpopular opinion, but my example for this is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling. This is the second in Harry Potter book series and I realize there are many, many people out there who will disagree with my assessment. I didn’t really enjoy the first Harry Potter book. However, when I kept pushing through and reading the second book, I started to see the magic of the series. That was until the end of book two. It felt formulaic and too similar to the first book. In the end (pun intended), it made it hard for me to want to keep reading the rest of the series. I expected something more inventive. It didn’t deliver for me.
The Too Twisted Twist
All writers want to be clever and some do it well . However, trying to be too clever can leave readers perplexed and annoyed at the ending of a book. Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins might be a good example, with twisting, unreliable perspectives, point of view changes and multiple red herrings the book winds and turns until the end twist is revealed.
Does the ending work? That has to be determined by the reader. I think it might be borderline for this book. When books twist and turn so much there is little room for error. One twist too far or one twist too little and no matter how great the book, the end can ruin it. It’s a delicate balance that’s not easy to manage. I applaud those who even try this Hitchcockian style story. It can’t be easy.
I do not need a happy ending. In fact, endings that tie everything into a neat perfect little bow often annoy me. I need something unresolved, unsettled or at least I need to be left with something to ponder or think on further. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is a great example of a non-ending. While I felt this worked for the book, not all books can accomplish this so well. Books with abrupt endings that resolve nothing and have no reason to end that way other than trying to be clever leave me disappointed.
Of course, whether or not a book ending disappoints is extremely subjective. While I wasn’t the only person unhappy with the book ending of All the the Ugly and Wonderful Things, there were plenty of people in our book club that liked the conclusion of the book. That’s what makes books interesting. Different people read, enjoy and consume stories differently. Still, writers beware, endings are important. We need to be careful with them.