Wanting Happy Endings
This month my reading has led me to think about happy endings. After a friend lost her husband, it was years before she could read anything that did not conclude with a straight up happily ever after. At the time I thought she was being a little extreme, but now I find myself fatigued by deep, dark tales that end in the same gloomy place they begin. I want the generosity of a happy ending. That means books for young readers, romance, and some of the classics.
I blame the ancient Greeks, who divided their drama primarily into comedy and tragedy. Aristotle preferred tragedy, which he believed purified us through providing catharsis. Shakespeare expanded the categories, but most of his plays were either comedies (which give us lots of marriages) or tragedies (which give us lots of deaths). Centuries later we still tend to discount stories with conclusions that bring a smile to our face — fairy tales, fit for the simple-minded or emotionally needy.
But Jane Eyre ends well, as does David Copperfield. Jane Austen does give us weddings, but not necessarily happily-ever-after couples. Charlotte’s Web does not end when Charlotte dies — it reaches forward into a happy autumn, with both Wilbur and Fern making new friends.
I have spent the last couple of months reading Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief, a series for young readers that happens to have no children in it. One review of the last book was titled Trusting in Return of the Thief and The Audacity of a Happy Ending, and I had my doubts such an ending could work. The hero, Eugenides, is no monster, but he can be extremely tiresome. I was not sure there were enough earrings in the world to the placate the gods and men and women of that world. But Turner pulled it off, ending with pure joy. When I finished the final page, I felt cathar-ted, no matter what Aristotle says.
I also felt that way when my husband and I finished reading the 1818 version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with a reading guide by Karen Swallow Prior. The story begins with high hopes — “You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.” — but it does not end there. Things get worse and worse and more foreboding and more evil. At least, that’s how I have always read the ending.
Prior’s final question for Volume III caused me to reconsider:
32. What is the significance of the last words and last scene of the novel belonging to the creature?
My husband, who was reading the book for the first time, thought the significance is that, as far as pop culture is concerned, we only remember the monster. We even conflate his name with that of his creator, Victor Frankenstein. I do think there is something happy about the story ending with the creature riding his ice-raft, “lost in darkness and distance.” With his last words, the monster says he is going to harm himself, yet we do not see that promise actually come to pass. Victor, the drama-mama, is forgotten by everyone but English majors, but the creature lives on … in Abbott and Costello, in Saturday Night Live, and in too many parodies to mention. I’d love to know what Mary Shelley would think of her monster putting on the Ritz.
I do love dark tales. I love conflict between characters and plots like messy balls of knotted yarn. But as I get older and find reality to be less and less encouraging, I am embracing the hope of a happy ending wherever I can find it. Even if I have to stretch.
As I have returned to Shelly’s blood-chilling masterpiece, so I am already returning to spend more time with Turner’s Odysseus-like hero. In an interview with Vox, she said, “I much prefer that we just have our horrible thing, and the whole rest of the book is recovery. And so although [book 2] starts in a very dark place, the whole rest of the book, things get better and better and better. That’s the kind of story arc I like.”
For me, at least for now, that arc is the best kind of catharsis.
Habitation of Wonder, by Abigail Carroll
The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom, by Margarita Engle (middle grade poetry)
Song of the Water Boatman & Other Pond Poems, by Joyce Sidman, illus. Beckie Prange
Red Sings from Treetops: a year in color, by Joyce Sidman, illus. Pamela Zagarenski (children’s poetry)
Picture Books and Early Readers
Into the Forest, by Anthony Browne
The Artist Who Loved Cats: The Inspiring Tale of Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen, by Susan S. Bernardo, illus. Courtnay Fletcher
Frog and Toad Are Friends; Frog and Toad Together; Frog and Toad All Year; Days with Frog and Toad, by Arnold Lobel (Join us for a series-themed Children’s Book Club next Friday, July 9!)
Middle Grade and YA
Ash, by Malinda Lo (a retelling of Cinderella)
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz, illus. Robert Byrd
Return of the Thief (book 6), by Megan Whalen Turner
Nightfall, by Issac Asimov (short story)
Hiroshima, by John Hersey (31,000-word essay in The New Yorker, August 23, 1946)
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, introduction and reading guide by Karen Swallow Prior
Grammar for a Full Life, by Lawrence Weinstein (TSP book club!)
Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens (reread for a book club)
1. Do you have a preference for a type of ending? Has your answer ever changed?
2. What is a story that struck you differently after a reread?
3. Share your June pages. Sliced, started, and abandoned are all fair game.
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