I know other critics — great critics — don’t share my reticence. This summer, in the Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Winkler started her review of Maggie O’Farrell’s “Hamnet” by summarizing the final scene, a maneuver so brazen that my eyebrows still rise when I think of it. And James Wood, the Great Spoiler himself, once splayed out the whole conclusion of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” — complete with suspense-squashing quotations.
If I pulled a stunt like that, I’d have torch-wielding villagers marching on me with pitchforks. (Spoiler alert: “Frankenstein.”) But as much as readers don’t want reviewers commenting on endings, they definitely like to comment on endings themselves. Whenever conversation turns to books, the single most common statement I hear from friends is: “Yeah, but I didn’t like the ending.” I give a pained smile and change the subject.
Last month, the online retailer OnBuy.com sifted through reviews on Goodreads to identify the Books With the Most Disappointing Endings. The methodology — searching comments for “ending” and variations of the word “disappointing” — feels a bit dubious, but the list is an irresistible walk down memory lane.
According to OnBuy’s final tally, British writers are particularly disappointing. That hack William Shakespeare wrote the worst finale of all time. In the immortal words of Bart Simpson’s friend Milhouse: “How could this have happened? We started out like Romeo and Juliet, but instead it ended in tragedy.” Booker winner Ian McEwan came in at a shameful No. 2. (For the record, I think “Atonement,” including its mind-blowing conclusion, is brilliant.) And gazillionaire writer J.K. Rowling magically takes two spots.
Here’s OnBuy’s list of the Top 12 Most Disappointing Endings:
1. “Romeo and Juliet,” by William Shakespeare.
2. “Atonement,” by Ian McEwan.
3. “Requiem,” by Lauren Oliver.
4. “The Sweet Far Thing,” by Libba Bray.
5. “Lord of the Flies,” by William Golding.
6. “Bridge to Terabithia,” by Katherine Paterson.
7. “Dear John,” by Nicholas Sparks.
8. “Where the Red Fern Grows,” by Wilson Rawls.
9. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” by J.K. Rowling.
10. “The Giver,” by Lois Lowry.
11. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” by J.K. Rowling.
12. “Breaking Dawn” by Stephenie Meyer.
As this list implies, there are many conflicting reasons we hate the way some books end. We hate endings that are too predictable, and we hate endings that are too surprising. We hate endings that are rushed, and we hate endings that are drawn out. And we really hate the endings of books we read in ninth grade.
If there’s any common thread, it’s that the endings that offend us most appear in the books we love most. (No one, after all, complains about the ending of a bad book.) I still remember adoring Reif Larsen’s debut novel, “The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet” (2009), about a precocious boy on a secret trek to Washington. But when that thoroughly enchanting story crash-landed in the final pages, I was irate. It felt like a desecration. I WANTED TO SPEAK WITH THE MANAGER.
When I asked The Washington Post’s readers recently what books they thought ended most disappointingly, the responses ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, that is from Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” to Stephen King’s “It.”
I was glad to see “Huckleberry Finn” nominated, as Twain’s rambling scene at the Phelps farm is perhaps the world’s best example of a great novel that finally collapses in a mess.
Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” and Delia Owens’s “Where the Crawdads Sing” were the only titles to receive several thumbs down, but they were also the most popular titles among the nominations — aside from the Bible, which two readers thought God had bungled at the end. Which doesn’t seem fair, considering it was His first book.
Many of the responses were initially baffling to me. Who, I wondered, could criticize the devastating finale of “King Lear” or “A Farewell to Arms”? Those scenes are among the most moving in Western literature.
Maybe the sadness is what lingers — and what we resent. Aristotle considered catharsis cleansing, but it can sometimes feel like a beating. Even going into a tragedy with eyes wide open, we cling to our hopes; it’s faith that keeps us enraptured, despite knowing that the flagstones are laid down in a path to the grave. Who isn’t traumatized when Catherine dies and her baby is stillborn? Who isn’t brokenhearted that Cordelia and her father don’t live to “sing, and tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies”?
As in life, saying goodbye is not easy for storytellers. Parting can be such sweet sorrow or such putrid disappointment. Drawing all the strands of a complicated tale to a satisfying ending is like landing a double backflip with three twists. Our enthusiasm soars as the final moment nears; our attention narrows to a tight focus. Holding our breath, we don’t want this to end — but we want it to end perfectly, and when it doesn’t, our disappointment exceeds all reason.
But I’ll keep that to myself.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
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