When I’m reading a book the most important factor for me isn’t the characters or the plot development or the quality of the writing; it’s the ending. I hadn’t really realised this before I wrote my first post of My Month in Books. Every review I was writing I was focusing on how satisfactory I found the ending. I could have really enjoyed the journey but my overwhelming memory will be the destination. And if that lets me down then it corrupts my memories of the book as a whole.
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan was a prime example of this. I loved the book as I was reading it. And although the ending was clever (albeit eerily reminiscent of the ending of Atonement – get some new material, Ian) it just wasn’t enough closure for me. What was her answer?! That will bug me every time I see that spine on my shelf.
The Casual Vacancy on the other hand I didn’t enjoy too much for the bulk of it but I was so impressed with the gritty ending that some how managed to satisfactorily solve everyone’s problems that now I think of it as a generally good book. Actually the longer it gets since I read it the more fondly I remember it.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been so suprised by this. This is what JK Rowling does best. On my first back-to-back read through of Harry Potter I wrote myself a list of the hints that are left throughout the books (yes, I know, I’m a massive geek) – why does Harry think he recognises the barman in The Hogs Head? Why does Dumbledore look triumphant when he’s told that Voldemort used Harry’s blood? And by the end of the series all of these were answered. The intricate plots of all seven books are tied up in a neat little bow.
The prospect of the ending makes me nervous every time I read books from the A Song of Ice and Fire series. In the same style as JK Rowling there are little hints left throughout the book – prophecies and flashbacks and subtle illusions – and I’ve been keeping a little (actually, very long) list to check back through at the end. And if they’re all explained then I’ll be able to marvel at George RR Martin’s genius. But if not I’ll feel betrayed. Actually betrayed. After committing however many hours of my life to reading those massive building bricks of books, waiting impatiently for decades for him to get around to writing the next installment, I want to be truly impressed. Astounded at his ability to weave such a neatly crafted narrative through however many thousands of pages. Not left with unanswered questions and unresolved plot lines.
I like to finish a book and feel like I’m done with that world. I’ve lived those lives, I know those people and by the time I turned the last page it was wrapped up and done with and left nothing hanging. All was well (or close enough).
The prize for the most frustrating ending I have ever come across goes to The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. I was recommended this book by an ex, forgetting that our taste in books overlapped not at all. I like my books to have a good story; he likes his to be pretentious and arty. If I didn’t know that then I would have assumed that he’d told me to read it as some kind of torture. Because to me that’s what the ending of City of Glass (the first book in the trilogy) amounted to. Torture. I started it full of hope and expectation – all this craziness must be setting up one hell of an ending! But as I got further and further through that story I started to doubt it. When there were only twenty pages to go and I still had no answers I was forced to accept that I wasn’t going to get my ending. Paul Auster had wimped out and explained nothing. NOTHING! I was so frustrated I actually refused to read the next two stories. It remains the only book I have ever started but not finished.
As Augustus Waters says in The Fault in our Stars –
There is this unwritten contract between author and reader and I think not ending your book kind of violates that contract
I know he’s referring to An Imperial Affliction which literally doesn’t end (and I can only imagine just how angry I would have got if I’d read that book) but to me, leaving questions hanging is just as reprehensible. I don’t want mystery, I don’t want to be left asking questions. An author creates a world, fills it with people and events, and they owe it to me to give it a comprehensive conclusion.