Do you need a happy ending?

The EndH and I don’t entirely share the same taste in fiction – he enjoys crime but I prefer mine on TV; he’s a great fan of translated fiction and I know I should read more. Despite that, I like to pass the books I’ve most enjoyed on to him and often he’s delighted. The problem is that he much prefers a happy ending but it’s my contention that it’s not possible to have a truly great novel without a degree of unhappiness in it. As a result many of my contributions to his TBR pile are examined carefully, then put back only to be put through the same process several months later. A case in point is Alexander Maksik’s beautiful A Measure to Marker Drift about a lonely young woman fleeing war. It’s a very fine piece of writing, as I tell him every time he pulls it out, but very sad. Back it goes. There’s another – Linda Olsson’s Sonata for Miriam – into which I slipped a note when H was having a particularly tricky time at work. It reads ‘beautiful but tragic’ so destined never to be read by him. How do you feel about happy endings? Do they influence what you read? Do you avoid unhappiness in fiction? Or do you think it’s an essential part of a good book?

24 thoughts on “Do you need a happy ending?

    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I think you’re right, Annabel, and of course it depends on your mood and what’s happening in your life, too.

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    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I suspect there are more ‘great books’ with unhappy endings than happy ones but I may be proved wrong. You’re right, though, an endless diet of unhappy endings might put even the most voracious reader off!

      Reply
  1. Alex

    I don’t have a preference. What I need is a book where the ending is ‘true’. Of course I would like everyone in the world to be happy but if the neatly tied up ending of a novel seems false then I would much rather I had been left weeping a bucketful of tears.

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    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Me, too! Perhaps it’s time, though, for me to confess that I avoid films with a great deal of suffering and unhappiness.

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  2. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Not so much a happy ending, but sometimes I need a book to be somewhat uplifting or life affirming, especially if I’ve read too many in a row that aren’t. It’s like music, we often don’t realise the effect it can have on us until someone else points it out, so for this reason its essential to mix it up a bit. That said, no serial killers or crime for me, when I need time out from tragic but beautiful, its creative non-fiction and/or nature writing for me.

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    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      A very interesting comment, Claire. It struck me that your remark about not realising the effect on ourselves could also be applied to news (radio, TV etc.) and newspapers. Rarely any happy endings, there.

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  3. litlove

    What I really love is the right ending for the book – though it’s extremely hard to do. Some books require happy endings (Mr Litlove and I have both just read The Rosie Project, and would have felt shortchanged without a little escapist bliss at the end), but the most require something more complex – a satisfying lack of complete closure. Being able to keep on thinking about the situation/characters afterwards can be part of the quality of a novel.

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  4. Annecdotist

    Like others commenting here, I prioritise an honest ending over anything else, and probably prefer a mixed bag of happy and sad elements in the resolution.
    I thought the rest of your post was interesting, how we might share our lives with someone – as I do – who has such a different taste in books when reading is so important to us. It never ceases to amaze me the stuff my husband likes to read, but very occasionally we manage to overlap in our tastes!

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    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Very true, Anne, but how much worse it would be to share our lives with someone who didn’t read at all! I suspect we wouldn’t still be together if that were the case.

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      1. Annecdotist

        Possibly, although I’m recently finding myself intrigued by people who can’t bear fiction, something that’s been sparked by my own ambivalence towards memoir, which crops up in my current blog post.
        BTW, a partner who reads and comments on your blog? That’s a step ahead of me.

        Reply
        1. Susan Osborne Post author

          Well it can be argued that all memoir has at least a strand of fiction running through it anyway, given our faulty memories and some people’s wish to put a positive spin on their lives – or the opposite with misery memoirs. H was a little surprised to find his comment published but I thought he had a right to defend himself!

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  5. Hugh xx

    I do occasionally read books with tragic endings! Though it has to be said I don’t think that has happened for a while …

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  6. kerry swash

    Prompted by your Black Lake post I’ve just reread this post and the comments. I think you’re right the book has to be true to itself – happy, sad or tragic. And I do find the books that stay in my mind as great are the sad ones. As well as a good ‘Irish’ wallow, I also find myself drawn to alot of mid-american novels where much is left unresolved and you almost feel like you’ve hitchhiked with them/their lives for a little while, dropped into the back seat as it were, then got out at the next stop without knowing what happened to them – I love that!

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  7. erdeaka

    hello 🙂 wow, what an interesting topic.
    I think every story has its own “best” ending. a story doesn’t necessarily have to have a happy ending nor a sad ending. I don’t like it when an author “force” their story to have a happy ending. I personally prefer a sad ending, though. I always feel like something comes upon me when I get a sad ending 🙂 quite weird, don’t you think?

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    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Hi, and thanks for your comment. I’m glad that I posted this – lots of interesting opinions. I’m not sure if I prefer sad endings but that’s more often than not what I seem to get. I think they’re more likely to make me think about the book, too. You’re absolutely right about forced endings, though. They don’t work at all.

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    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Well, there’s synchronicity for you! The Vactioners is sitting on my desk, ready to be read next. I’ll be sure to pass it on to H. Thanks, Anne.

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  8. naomifrisby

    I have so many thoughts on this. A few years ago, a friend and I had quite a heated discussion about this! I was in favour of unhappy endings as I considered them realistic, she liked a happy ending because it made her feel that, perhaps sometimes, everything is alright with the world. However, recently I’ve heard Hilary Mantel talk about endings and she says there aren’t any, there are only beginnings and this makes more sense to me. In that case, the unhappy ending would be the start of something new – a new way of living with a loss or in a different circumstance – and the happy ending would be the beginning of a new journey with all the twists and turns inherent in that. A good book doesn’t end, does it? It lives on in our minds and sometimes our actions.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Wise words from Ms Mantel, and optimistic, too. You’re absolutely right about the continuing influence of books on readers, and by extension the people they discuss then with.

      Reply

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