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Should Novels Have Happy Endings?
Reading a novel isn't like accomplishing a chore, or shouldn't be. I read a novel expecting to take its message with me, perhaps forever. No, I don't memorize the book, but I internalize the message, even if it's a thriller. Every book you read becomes part of you, part of your story, part of your life. This may sound a bit romantic, but it's the way I hold reading fiction. I finish a book, but I don't want it to go away - sometimes.
Novels should not always have happy endings. It's pleasant when they do, but it shouldn't be a rule of fiction writing. For readers of romance novels, this may not be so. They want the ending to be happy. But some great novels are tragedies, and the tragic can be uplifting and meaningful for the reader.
A well told story should end with an opening, a realization that there's more or that there can be. This is how literature becomes part of your life
Should the Story End?
That seems like a crazy question. Of course they have to end, you may think. Unless the story is a never-ending TV series, there has to be a point when the story comes to a close. But it should come to a close for the writer. His job is done. Should it also end for the reader? No, an emphatic no. A well told story should end with an opening, a realization that there's more or that there can be. This is how literature becomes part of your life. Elements of a story show up in your thoughts and emotions long after the book comes to a close. That keeps the book from becoming a chore, a thing that you complete and move on to the next thing. Otherwise, reading fiction is an entertainment that ends with the last page of the novel. Some writers like to cover all of the open plot ideas with an epilogue. Recall the end of the movie Animal House, a well told hysterically funny story. We are told what became of each of the frat brothers later in life. It was done in perfect keeping with the story itself. Writing an epilogue isn't easy, and shouldn't always be done because it can end the story with an awkward amount of information, stuff that the writer wants us to know and doesn't trust us to figure out for ourselves. But an epilogue, like a simple good ending, can make a book a part of our lives.
Do You Think Novels Should Have Happy Endings?
In Sunlight and in Shadow - A Case in Point
Mark Helprin has long been one of my favorite authors. When he publishes a book, I consider it an event. I don't have to read reviews of the book, I just go out and buy it, or in my case buy and download it to my Kindle. Helprin is one of America's great novelists. I read Winter's Tale in July of 1983 while on vacation in Maine. I sat on a porch and was so engrossed that I got the worst sunburn I ever had because I just couldn't stop reading. The book had a quality of beauty that one doesn't often encounter in a novel. It is a tale of fantasy, woven in a way that captures you. I then read A Soldier of the Great War, another great book. I've read Memoirs of Antproof Case, Freddy and Frederica, a laugh riot of a book, as well as his short story collection, The Pacific. Helprin is a novelest who never let me down, a writer that transports me to another place, a place I like to be.
Until In Sunlight and in Shadow. I loved the book, up until the ending. Some criticize Helprin for his sometimes over-the-top prose, lengthy expositions of his thoughts on a character, a place or an event. These wordy side bars, some say, slow down the story. Well, that may be so, but his poetic imagery is so uplifting that it's worth the slowdown. The book has a great plot. A soldier returns from World War II. sees a beautiful woman on the Staten Island ferry and falls in love at first sight. Romantic? You bet, and beautifully so. They finally meet and fall in love, and struggle to overcome various adversities, which they handle heroically. Throughout the book are Helprin's famous lengthy journeys into describing scenes and people. He loves New York City, as do I, and his descriptive pages on the beauty of the city will never leave me. I may notice that the East River looks sparkling on a certain day. Helprin doesn't just describe the sparkle, he makes the river come alive with motion and especially color. He also did this in Winter's Tale and did it beautifully. The reader notices that his descriptions jump back and forth from sunlight and shadow. Get it? It works.
So I fell in love with the characters and also befriended the supporting players. The book is lengthy at 725 pages in the paper version, but I couldn't put it down, thinking that it was a story that I never wanted to end.
But it did end, abruptly. No I won't spoil the ending by telling you what happened, but you will probably guess it. No it wasn't happy, but it was much worse than that. I felt like a door was slammed in my face. Story over, please move on there's nothing to see here. Don't think you're going to muse over the future of the characters. The story is over, not just for the author but for the reader. I was left gasping and wondering what happened to him and him and her and them. How did those late blooming plot twists resolve? Don't ask. Helprin decided that the story is over, his story and the reader's story as well.
Were the book not on my Kindle I would have thrown it across the room. Never was I so disappointed in a story's ending. As I said earlier in this article, stories don't always have to have a happy ending, but they should leave the reader an opening into the fictitious future of the characters. With this book, laced with some fascinating and compelling characters, it's done, it's all over. A rich young woman has a bright future on Broadway. That's all you're left with.
I wish Helprin would re-release this book, with an ending befitting its otherwise powerful writing.
© 2013 Russ Moran