Nick Youngson/Alpha Stock Images
Many excellent novels have excellent endings — conclusions that might be upbeat or downbeat but are done well, feel satisfying, and make sense in the context of the books as a whole. Among the many famous novels with fine finishes are The Great Gatsby, A Tale of Two Cities, The Grapes of Wrath, The Brothers Karamazov, and Silas Marner.
Then there are excellent novels that don’t quite “stick the landing.” Their endings are either too positive or too negative for the story lines, or too rushed, or too drawn out, or have other flaws. I will discuss some disappointing finales, while not revealing too much in the way of specific spoilers.
Why are some conclusions less than top-notch? No author is perfect, of course; sometimes, it’s just hard to end a novel well. Or perhaps the author has a deadline, or is tired of the book, or wants to get on to her/his next book, or…
This topic occurred to me last week while reading John Grisham’s Sooley — a very good novel about an admirable African teen named Samuel Sooleymon who comes to the U.S. to play college basketball. The book had compelling feel-good elements and wrenching tragic elements, but the ending just felt wrong and out-of-character for the protagonist. A problematic conclusion can obviously affect one’s feelings about an entire book; in the case of Sooley, that single jarring late scene in a 368-page novel bumped it from an A- to a B- for me.
A similar thing happened a few years ago when I was reading My Sister’s Keeper. I found that Jodi Picoult novel to be absorbing and heartbreaking as we saw a child conceived specifically to be a medical donor to her ill sister — and watched that younger sibling grow to understandably resent her “purpose.” Then, as in Sooley, a late plot development came out of left field and had me going “Whaaat?” The result was another B-, this time dropping from a full A.
Not that the unexpected is always bad. For instance, the twist in (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother — to name another sibling-themed novel — was ingenious and more realistic than where I thought the story was going. And of course mystery fiction can often have great concluding twists, aided by red herrings along the way.
Do thwarted couples in various novels get together at the end, or not? Either finish can make sense, depending on the book, but I thought Edith Wharton made the wrong choice in her otherwise terrific The Age of Innocence.
When Margaret Atwood decided to write a sequel more than 30 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, I wondered how close it would be in quality to the initial novel. As it turned out, pretty close — The Testaments was really good. But the concluding pages seemed rushed after the previous parts of the novel unfolded just right.
There was an opposite issue with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. After the breathtaking drama in most of the trilogy, the last few dozen pages felt like an extended epilogue. Poignant, with some insight into what we would today call post-traumatic stress syndrome, but things seemed too drawn out.
The Harry Potter series? I had no problem with the exciting and cathartic ending of the seventh book, even as some earlier parts of that final book in J.K. Rowling’s series dragged at times. But then the author tacked on an epilogue showing the teen characters as adults a number of years later. Interesting to see, but it felt kind of clunky and “summarized.”
I’ll conclude by discussing a couple of 19th-century novels.
The House of the Seven Gables ending came off as too positive for the earlier parts of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s mostly melancholy book. Very glad I read the novel, though.
And Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was going along amazingly — with the pitch-perfect depictions of Huck and Jim, their relationship, and the memorable supporting characters they met while traveling on the Mississippi — until Tom Sawyer entered the picture in the latter section of the novel. He was annoying, things got too “slapsticky,” and the book went from an A++ to an A. It almost made one wish that Tom didn’t escape the cave in the earlier novel in which he starred. 🙂
Any examples you’d like to mention of great novels that could have ended in a more satisfying way?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about some weirdly fantastical fake upgrades to my town’s school buildings — is here.