Coming to a Bad End

End, Finish

Washington Post book critic Ron Charles recently wrote about his reluctance to spoil the endings of the books he reviews, yet worried about “the propriety of burying my appraisal of a book’s conclusion.” It’s a conundrum for him, because endings are so critical to what readers come away with. I know many many fellow readers who adored Where the Crawdads Sing all the way up to the last pages, because they believe the ending (whatever it is; my lips are sealed) wasn’t true to the character. Put me in that camp too.

There’s lots of reasons not to like an ending, and a disconnect with the rest of the book is a good one. Critics and critical readers didn’t like the ending to Ian McEwan’s Atonement, because it felt too manipulative and artificially tidy. One of my favorite classics is Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but I hate the ending—not because it betrays the character, not because it doesn’t ring true, but simply because I don’t want it to end that way. No surprise, then, that in all my many repeat viewings of West Side Story, I’ve sat through the last half-hour in a state of increasing anxiety, hoping against hope that Chino won’t step out and shoot Tony at the end (Oops! Spoiler alert).

Wishing the ending the author chose were something different isn’t exactly the same as disliking the ending that was chosen. In the first case, the problem is internal to the reader and, in the second, it may be with the author.

Charles reports on an analysis by online retailer of GoodReads reviews to identify the “Books with the Most Disappointing Endings.” Their methodology, he says, “feels a bit dubious,” but, nevertheless, here are the top five: Romeo and Juliet (you want it to end differently), Atonement (too neat), Requiem by Lauren Oliver (don’t know it), and The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray (don’t know it either). Two Harry Potter books are on the list: “Deathly Hallows” at spot 9 and “Half-Blood Prince” at spot 11. Weaknesses, if there be them, haven’t hurt sales, though. “Half-Blood Prince” sold 6.9 million copies in the first 24 hours and “Deathly Hallows” 8.3 million—before most readers got to their questionable endings, I’d wager

Here are the contradictory assessments readers provide about the endings they hate: they’re too rushed (that deadline is looming; wrap this baby up!) or too drawn out (enough already; The Goldfinch is a prime offender here); they’re too surprising (surprising? If no groundwork is laid, sure, but if it is . . . don’t we like plots with a twist?) or too predictable (thrillers, especially, have developed a too well-worn plot groove). And here, Charles notes, other readers bedsides me lament the fate of poor Tess.

Charles’s article prompted hundreds of WashPo readers to comment, “and the result was a funny, eclectic and often contradictory look at how we want our books to conclude,” wrote editor Stephanie Merry. More on that next week.

Photo: Alexas_Fotos for Pixabay.

6 thoughts on “Coming to a Bad End

  1. When I read The Deep by Peter Benchley long ago, I recall turning the page only to discover the book had ended.

  2. Yeah, writing a good ending is crucial. As Mickey Spillane said, “Your first line sells your book. Your last line sells your next one.”

  3. Good post, Vicki. It’s funny that you mention West Side Story. Just this week I told someone about my experience, which is almost the same as yours. I am so lulled by the story that I always expect Tony to make it over that chain link fence. Every time. Would I like it better if on my next viewing of the film, somehow that were the case? Probably not. But it’s interesting how this happened to both of us.

    By the way: have you, by any chance read “Transcription” by Kate Atkinson? Something I’d read summarizing the novel had alerted me to a final twist, but it was cleverly enough written that I thought the twist had happened — when actually it hadn’t. Good job, Ms. Atkinson!

    The ending of “Loss of Inheritance” by Kiran Desai, which I just finished, was satisfying in a way, but it was one of those endings where, even though characters who’ve doubted and struggled until they finally get together again have “a moment.” And you know that the next day, nothing will have changed. (Not a spoiler.)

    I do sometimes feel that the author rushes the ending either because they have a submission deadline, or maybe they’re just trying to keep the book to a book-group tolerant length! Could it be? Maybe, because book groups must be a major driver of book sale profits.

    Thanks for another good post. (And for reminding me about Tess: which I loved so many years ago that I don’t remember the ending at all.


    • Thanks! I’ve read several of Kate Atkinson’s books, but not the one you mentioned. Loved When Will There Be Good News? (the title alone) but not her most recent, Big Sky. While I usually greatly admire the Booker prize-winners, somehow Loss of Inheritance didn’t grab me. Have you read American Spy or Your House Will Pay? Both excellent. Listened to them on audio.

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