Unhappily Ever After

endingsI’m always prowling around for new books to read and a few of my friends (okay, basically all of my friends) are continually horrified that an incurable bibliophile such as myself hasn’t so much as read the back cover of Veronica Roth’s Divergent.

My friend Anna has been particularly insistent, but a few conversations about it ago (it comes up a lot) she admitted that she didn’t like the way the series ended.  Given how much she raves about these books, I was a little shocked.  “What do you mean?” I asked.  “What didn’t you like about it?”

Taking pains to avoid spoilers (isn’t she sweet?), she said didn’t like “the amount of closure”.

Well, what does that mean?  Plot holes?

No, not really.  She didn’t like where the characters ended up.

Huh?

“I am very much a happy ending type person,” she finally said, explaining that she understood the author’s choices, but didn’t like them.  “I’m supposed to feel triumphant, and there was no real victorious feeling.”

As curious as I instantly felt about how the Divergent series ends, that got me thinking about book endings in general.  Sometimes, we go into a book knowing it’s not going to end happily ever after, like the wonderful Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, which unsurprisingly made me bawl my eyes out.  Sometimes, the bitter end is shocking, like the first time I read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  And unhappy endings are certainly not a new phenomenon (see The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Scarlet Letter, and like half of Shakespeare for just a few gut-kickers).

So what was it about knowing the Divergent series ends unhappily that makes me want to read it?  What is it that is so compelling about unhappy endings?

While I admit that not all unhappy endings work for me, there are a lot of features that seem to show up in unhappy endings that I find much more interesting than neat and tidy everyone-gets-what-they-wanted endings.

Endings that aren’t all happy-happy are often just more realistic.  I love an ending that I didn’t see coming, but that still makes total and perfect sense.  The girl doesn’t have to get the guy; the MC doesn’t have to defeat his every last demon; the protagonist doesn’t have to win, even.  But the ending has to be one that I can think, Yeah, that would totally happen like this.

Reality aside, sometimes I just find sadness more emotionally interesting than happily ever after, which probably says a lot about me.  Likewise, unhappy endings are more memorable.  Humans are evolved to remember pain better than pleasure; we cling to our failures more than our triumphs.  Likewise, I find that stories with a bit of bitterness at the end stick with me longer.  And while it’s all fine and dandy when the average, doesn’t-think-she’s-pretty everygirl manages to defeat the bad guys, make the world a better place, and take her pick between two equally hot and devoted studmuffins, it all starts to run together a bit, you know?

This isn’t all to say that I just automatically love an unhappy ending.  (I’m looking at you, His Dark Materials.)  There are plenty of things that can ruin an ending, happy or otherwise, catapulting it straight to just plain bad.

As mentioned earlier, an ending has to be realistic.  I mean, I love Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, but it has always irked me (even nearly twenty years after my first reading) that the romance problem at the end is so neatly fixed up out of nowhere on like the last page.  It’s too easy, you know?  As readers, we’re usually not picking up a book get another hefty dose of reality, but when a happily ever after is just handed to characters, it cheapens the rest of the struggle, somehow.

Another thing that drives me nuts is when characters are suddenly and radically… not in character.  I’m actually guilty of this myself in an early draft of one of my novels.  The main character was an honest and principled guy throughout the entire book, and then threw his values to the wind for the last chapter to become a lying, backstabbing jerk.  Why?  Because following plot points was more important to me than following character.  Don’t do this, guys.

And while we’re not doing things, here’s something you should do- do wrap up all your major subplots.  I mean, you don’t have to tie up every teeny weeny loose end and let us know where every character is going to be twenty years from now (*glares at Harry Potter*), but the more an author mentions and hints at a thing, the more important it is.  Into the Woods was really interesting, and the conclusion was realistic and unhappy and in character and all that good stuff, but a pretty darned major question mark was still dangling on the last page and to this day, I want to shake the author and demand, “What the heck happened to those kids he’s been having nightmares about for the last thirty years??”  I know having everything wrap up at the end isn’t necessarily realistic, but if I’ve had to read about it at least five times throughout the book, I think I can expect some kind of conclusion.

But even worse than dangling subplots is pointlessness.  Going back in time to before the adventure starts, exposing at the end that the whole thing was some kind of game simulation, a.k.a. anything that negates the story itself- these all drive me batty.  Again, with another book I love, Alice in Wonderland just about killed me [spoiler alert have you seriously not read this book yet go read it right now then come back] when Alice woke up from her nice nap, the whole thing having been a dream.  All that development, all that peril, all that plot, for naught.  Good morning, sunshine!  That was pointless.

So I guess this is all to say… realistic, in character, conclusive, and meaningful endings that aren’t necessarily super-saccharine happy?  Bring it on.  Maybe I’ll pick up Divergent after I finish Brown Girl Dreaming (which is beautiful, you should read it).

What about you guys?  Any endings that you loved or hated?  Any endings mentioned here that you think I’ve maligned that you think were perfect?  Let me know in the comments!

Happy reading!