Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Saving the Best for Last

with 4 comments

I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but here, it’s ridiculous.  It just turned eight o’clock on the morning and it’s already seventy degrees, and very muggy, so that seventy feels like eighty.  It got to nearly 100 yesterday, and it’s supposed to do the same today and tomorrow. 

It’s a good thing I’ve got a lot of work to do.

In spite of all that, however, I’ve got a complaint.

I just finished a book that I enjoyed all the way through, and then I got to the last ten pages.

And I hated the ending.

I mean that literally.

The ending seemed to me to be a) facile, and b) predictable and c) to negate, in fact, what the author thought she was trying to say.

C, above, is the most important point.

I felt the same way about the ending to the movie version of Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, a book I’ve loved for decades.

The book is about the spiritual journey of a man named Larry Darvell, who is compelled by his experiences in the Great War to go find the meaning of life.  He finds it in Buddhism, and in detaching himself from all passions.

And at the end of the book, that’s what he does.  He gives up his small private income and his life in Paris and goes back to America to drive a cab, to practice moderation and “continence,” by which he means celibacy.

And yes, I know.  This sounds awful.  The book is wonderful nevertheless, and you have to remember that it was written long before Western celebrities had taken up Buddhism as a hobby.

The Buddhism as a hobby thing, however, is a good reason not to see the Bill Murray remake of the movies.  When I talk about the movie here, I’m talking about the movie with Gene Tierney and Tyrone Power.

And, as I said, the ending to that movie is truly, mind-numbingly awful, because at the end of it, what Larry does is confront his old girlfriend from Chicago and charge her with all her sins, with complicity in the death of a mutual friend, with selfishness and jealousy.

And there is, of course, a certain amount of satisfaction to be had from such a scene.  Isabel really is a monster of self-centeredness.  You want to see her smacked around a little, even if only verbally.

But having Larry actually do it makes everything we’ve heard about Larry’s spiritual journey null and void.   He has not reached the shores of enlightenment.  He has not changed his very soul.

It’s as if all the industrialists at the end of Atlas Shrugged had gone–oh, gee, okay, we meant what we said, but we’re making an exception for Social Security.

I’ve had people tell me they felt this way–betrayed, let down, annoyed, angry, I don’t know–by the endings of some mystery novels, where either the murderer isn’t caught, or where he can’t be punished in one way or the other.

A mystery novel, however, has the conventions of the genre to deal with.  Readers come to a mystery with the expectation that the perpetrator will be revealed and punished, either killed during the action or arrested for trial and imprisonment later.

The book I was reading was a mainstream novel, which means that the conventions are fewer and the expectations should arguably be less.

The ending still did something more than merely annoy me, and it ensured that I would never read this particular book again.

It didn’t quite get me to a place where I wouldn’t read another book by this author, but if I did read another book and the ending did the same thing to me, that would probably be it.

Is this sort of thing general?  Do we all do this?

We talk a lot about how a book opens, and how important it is to keep the reader’s attention so that he or she goes on reading, but it seems to me that after that we mostly take it for granted that if the book hooks and holds us, the ending will be all right.

This book I just read proves on its own that that isn’t always the case.

And that doesn’t even get into the phenomenon of books whose real endings take place a good whacking hunk of prose before the technical ending, so that you get the bang-up you want and then have to read another 50 pages of meandering for no reason anybody can figure out.

The real ending of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, for instance, is when Fred and George rout the evil Umbrage with their fireworks.  Everything after that is mostly anticlimax.

For myself, as a writer, I put less thought into my endings than I do to most of the rest of the books, and it occurs to me that this has probably always been a mistake.

I don’t think I’ve ever done this sort of thing, though, where the last ten pages makes the entire rest of the fiction completely pointless.

Maybe I should say that at least I hope I haven’t.

Written by janeh

July 21st, 2011 at 8:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Saving the Best for Last'

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  1. And now we all get to guess title and author? The last chapter of Brooks’ BOBOS IN PARADISE had that feel for me–as though it was written by someone who hadn’t read the rest of the book.

    I am curious about how the ending could both be predictable and negate the rest of the book, though. I’ll grant you it’s a great thing to have an ending the reader never sees coming, but which is inevitable once it IS read. But it’s also a very rare thing. Really good endings are an art, and even some very talented writers haven’t mastered it.


    21 Jul 11 at 3:53 pm

  2. I thought she must mean ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’. I was able to get both that and the preceding book from the local library, and although I’m only at about page 25, I’m already fed up with the teenager. I don’t have much patience with tiresome teenagers.


    21 Jul 11 at 6:21 pm

  3. Your endings are just find, Jane. They are some of the best, most immensely satisfying, endings of any mysteries I read, because you don’t only tie up all the loose ends of the mysteries, but you also have the epilogs that push the story of Gregor and Benis along a bit further.


    22 Jul 11 at 6:45 am

  4. I was going to offer Dorothy Sayers “Gaudy Night” and “Busman’s Honeymoon” as good mysteries that continue after the crime is solved. But they can equally be ocnsidered romances and the endings are part of the romance.

    Going back to the earlier topic of “cultural literacy”, I’ve been chatting with a young woman in the US who claims to have a BA. She didn’t know that the Southern Hemisphere has winter during the northern summer and hadn’t heard about the killings in Norway.


    23 Jul 11 at 5:29 pm

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