When I was a teenager, I liked romantic suspense novels. Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting and This Rough Magic were my favorites. My mom, a reader, too, eschewed romance. She once told me in a bored voice that if she came across a sex scene in a book, she skipped it. But Mom enjoyed suspenseful novels, especially cozy mysteries, though she had an odd habit of plodding through the first couple of chapters, jumping to the end to read the last few pages, then returning to her earlier spot and finishing the book.
I never understood this. In my opinion, the whole point of reading mystery novels, or romantic-suspense novels, for that matter, was enjoying the who-did-the-dastardly-deed guesswork, picking up clues, piecing together motives, and then savoring the grand finale, delighting in a surprise or the confirmation of suspicions. A last chapter was well worth the wait.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about endings, how important a good resolution is, and how hard it is to achieve. Undoubtedly, we’ve all read books with bad endings. I don’t mean sad. Just plain bad. The kind that leaves us shaking our heads in irritation or confusion. Sometimes when an ending disappoints me, I wonder if the author wrote and wrote and wrote, gleefully planting seeds along the way, with no idea of what the hell she was growing—in other words, without knowing from the onset how her story would end. How aggravating. It’s like being in grade school, sitting next to a kid who gloats, “I have a secret. A huge secret,” when, come to find out, he doesn’t have a secret. There is no secret! An author who does this risks making the reader unhappy and annoyed.
I like endings that feel earned, endings that shimmer, like Mrs. Turpin’s ambiguous reaction to her final vision in Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” or the lash of longing and regret in Russell Banks’s “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story,” or the wonder and waft of hope in Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral.”
We crave tales with satisfying endings, probably because real life doesn’t frequently deliver them. Though a family hopes the relative who struggles with addiction gets a handle on her problems, it’s possible she never will. Though money-pinched folks hope to find a way out of their financial difficulties, they may end their days buried in debt. Though we hope and pray we’ll come together as a nation during a pandemic, we may not. After all, we can’t even agree on the simplest, smallest precautionary measure, like wearing a mask in public. Instead, as the cases multiply and the death toll rises, we stagger around, asking ourselves, Will it end? Will it ever end?
Yes, a good book or story offers escape and exercises the imagination. But it also gratifies a strong desire for closure. We like to see quandaries unkink and quagmires clear. We want to believe that that which starts must eventually end. Indeed, we want to believe that the main character, through ingenuity, bravery, self-sacrifice, and hard work, can engineer that resolution. And we want to believe that we can have the same control over our own lives—that a crisis, no matter how harrowing, can be confronted and resolved.
I want to believe that. I’m trying to believe that.