Saturday, January 25, 2014

Happy endings?

One of the greatest challenges of writing a novel (and one reason I've had so many false starts) is figuring out how to finish it. There's nothing more deflating for a reader than a novel that falls flat at the end. And, of course, a good finale doesn't mean it has to be a "happy ending." It can be uplifting, heartbreaking, tragic, or surprising, but the end has to feel satisfyingly complete and fit the tone of the story. I've been thinking about this lately after reading a novel by Geraldine Brooks called Caleb's Crossing. This is the only novel I've read by Brooks (she won the Pulitzer for People of the Book), and she is a fine writer.

The story is narrated by young Bethea Mayfield (completely fictional), the daughter of one of the original English colonizers of Martha's Vineyard in the 1600s, and it is very loosely based on a real Wampanoag man who was the first native to graduate from Harvard College. Bethea and Caleb meet clandestinely as children and become friends, but events conspire to bring Caleb into the Christian mission as a student of Bethea's father. The remarkable young scholar is trained to join the first class of natives at Harvard, a project of benefactors still living in England for the most part. That is the backbone of the story, which beautifully details the yearnings of a gifted young woman who craves learning for herself and the complications of a friendship between two people divided by their cultures.

This novel is right in my wheelhouse -- well-written historical fiction set in early colonial America. It is one of those novels that I was completely enamored by until the very end, when the painstakingly detailed journey of the characters flashes suddenly forward to their various ends. It was just a weird pacing for me, especially after having come to sympathize so  much with the main characters. Their stories were dispatched, I thought, with a rather cold brevity. Perhaps I'm nitpicking here, because there is so much to like. For me, a so-so book with a flat ending is all of a piece and soon forgotten; however, the better the novel is in the beginning and middle parts, the more disappointing it is when the ending goes splat.

This happens all the time (perhaps more frequently) in other mediums. Television is rife with them: Lost. Need I say more? Ditto, Twin Peaks. I can't count Deadwood, because they didn't get a chance to wrap it up before cancellation (for shame, HBO!). On the other hand, I thought Breaking Bad's finale was brilliant and so was MASH's. Getting the ending right is what distinguishes a classic from mere entertainment.

Have you had this experience with books -- when you liked everything about it except the end? I felt the same disappointment in Donna Tartt's otherwise terrifically creepy The Little Friend. I literally couldn't put it down; I read it until my head hurt. Perhaps nothing could sustain my level of intrigue at the finish. I'm not even sure what it was about it that made me feel let down. On the contrary, endings that I loved were Ann Patchett's Bel Canto and Meyer's The Son. What about you? I'd like to know which books jump out at you for having either very satisfying or bad ends.

No comments: