This week, Allison Amend, the author of A Nearly Perfect Copy and the Sami Rohr Prize finalist Stations West, blogs for The Postscript on the endings and why they are not always so happy. The Postscript series is a special peek “behind the scenes” of a book. It’s a juicy little extra something to add to a book club’s discussion and a reader’s understanding of how the book came together.
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My father has a cousin, Joanie, who is a “reader” in the old fashioned sense of the word: books, lots of them. Though her eyesight is deteriorating, rare is the week Joanie doesn’t demolish at least three books. She favors mysteries, hard-boiled detective stories, but there’s rarely been a genre which didn’t somehow strike her as worth reading.
Joanie is a hoot; she may be prouder of me than my own proud parents. Still, when I saw her at my book party, she frowned at me through her drawn-on eyebrows (the pencil the same magenta color as her hair), and said, “Honey, why don’t you write a happy book? Why are all of your books so sad?”
“Because,” I replied, “life is full of pain and suffering, and as a Jew you should know that.” Then I smiled to show I was joking. I’m actually a rather optimistic person. I believe everything works out ok in the end. I’ve also been accused of being funny. But my books are certainly not the kind where the protagonist rides off into the sunset.
Why not? Because life is full of pain and suffering, duh. To quote The Princess Bride, anyone who says differently is selling something.
Also, endings are tricky. They are the most complained-about portion of books, my nonscientific poll suggests.
As readers, we enter into relationships with these characters — we know their innermost thoughts, their faults, their dreams. And we want them to succeed the way we want our children to succeed, to live happily. But what life is lived without adversity? And why on earth would we want to read about such a life?
The best endings make the reader gasp in surprise and then recognize the conclusion as inevitable. The characters’ live extend beyond the reach of the novel; and we’re left to think about what their journey tells us about ourselves.
Of course, many books end happily. There are entire genres devoted to reuniting separated couples, or bringing murderers to justice, or vanquishing alien aggressors. And these novels are comforting to us the way the predictability of a 3‑minute pop song is comforting, or a cup of Starbucks coffee. But these are not pieces of culture that stay with us, that change us or move us.
My novel, A Nearly Perfect Copy, is the story of two art-world denizens (a director of an auction house in New York and a Spanish artist living in Paris) who turn to forgery to get what they want, their principles thus sacrificed in the hopes that the end will justify the means. There is no way that the resolution of their story can involve puppies and rainbows.
Which is not to say that you’ll finish my book imbued with hopelessness and despair. As my fellow novelist Nelly Reifler says, “even a dark ending can be uplifting, exhilarating, as long as it seems to hover in space and time — because then it reflects life to us as it is: unresolved, eternally unresolvable.”
And that, Cousin Joanie, is the reason why my books don’t have “happy” endings. Also [insert Borscht-Belt comedian accent] what, I’m Jewish! You want I should write a happy book?
To read more from Allison, see her Visiting Scribe posts here.
Allison Amend, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is the author of the Independent Publisher Book Award-winning short story collection Things That Pass for Love and the novels Stations West (a finalist for the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Oklahoma Book Award) and A Nearly Perfect Copy. She lives in New York City.