The right ending

I wrote this post before Oprah announced her next reading club pick, but didn’t get around to putting it up until now. If you’re going to read THE LIFE OF EDGAR SAWTELLE you have my permission to skip this post because it gives stuff away. Like, the ending.

***

I’ve been working on the ending of THE LANGUAGE OF BEES. The beginning and middle, too, but most recently the ending, reshaping it, removing a character I decided did not belong there, making it faster and clearer and more complex.

In the meantime, I’ve been reading THE LIFE OF EDGAR SAWTELLE, a book getting a lot of buzz on the “Is this Oprah’s next choice?” circuit. And I couldn’t see why she would want it, until I reached the end, because (and this is where, if you intend to read the book—and it is well worth reading, 547 pages of it anyway—you should stop) Oprah likes depressing books. Oprah likes glum and dim (not dark, that’s different) and unrelieved awfulness landing on the poor characters with only maybe a faint glimmer of some light at the end, for one or two of them. This is actually kind of nice, because those of us who don’t like books that remind us of people we cross the street to avoid see that little printed Oprah’s Choice sticker on the cover and know to pass it over.

But EDGAR SAWTELLE has been well reviewed and sounded interesting, and even though it’s 562 pages and at my current reading pace was going to mean more than a week’s investment, I bought it. And loved the world David Wroblewski crafted: unique dogs in a unique family, a breed shaped through fifty canine generations to interact with human beings, to communicate and not only obey, but obey thoughtfully. The main character is a boy who is mute but not deaf, and the family has not only bred the dogs, but kept records of every dog, every step of the way, even after they are placed with others. Interesting concept, gorgeous writing, great characters, including the dogs.

But Wroblewski is a product of creative writing courses. By and large, books judged great in the early 21st century Western world do not have happy endings, period.

Let me pause here to say that I do not require happy endings. The warm-and-fuzzy feeling is a pleasant bonus, but I’m very willing to sacrifice it for Right. And sometimes Right is dark and sometimes Right is weird, but whatever flavor it leaves in the reader’s mouth, the end has to complete the book. When I close a book for the last time, I need the ending note (to shift sensual-analogies here) to reverberate through the memory of all those pages before it. It is the author’s last chance to communicate with me, to tell me what he had in mind, what he wants me to know.

EDGAR SAWTELLE reads as if the first draft had a happy ending, but when Wroblewski showed it to his writing teachers, they shook their heads mournfully and told him that Great Books don’t have cheerful endings. Look at COLD MOUNTAIN. So he suppressed his storyteller’s instincts and went away and made it all modern and depressing.

But the problem is, he didn’t just make it depressing, he made the ending a sound and a fury, signifying nothing. Fire, explosions, exotic poison, violence, the villain and the hero meeting face to face. And our young hero not only rescues the dogs, he rescues all the paper that IS the dogs, the narrative of the breeding process that grants dimension and immortality not only to the breed, but to the three generations of Sawtelles who dedicated their lives to their dogs.

Then he dies. And his enemy dies. And his mother is injured, and emptied of will, and anyway she has never been interested in the paperwork the boy has just given his life to save. And finally, some of the dogs escape into the wilderness, where one gathers they are to live on their own, away from humans. That utterly unique form of interspecies communication is rendered pointless, with neither breeding program nor link between dog and man. The protagonist is dead, the villain is dead, the point of it all vanishes in smoke.

A week’s rapt reading, and: That’s it, folks, over now, sorry, it was a nice story but here’s the real world where shit-storms happen and everyone dies and nothing means anything, anyway.

Now, normally I am the head of the LRK lending library, with many of the hardbacks I buy getting read by three or four others. But this book? Can I tell my fellow family and friends to enjoy the book but maybe shut it at the beginning of page 548?

What about you—any books you loved whose endings made you want to throw it across the room?

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17 Comments

  1. Strawberry Curls on September 22, 2008 at 11:36 am

    And here I thought I was the only person who avoided Oprah’s picks because they were so depressing I want to go crawl into a hole and never come out after reading them. The world is real enough, challenging enough, and likely to knock your feet out from under you at any moment, without the help of reading material that leaves me feeling hopeless. I avoid books like that as if they carried the plague, which for me, they do. I don’t need all sunshine and lollipops, but I need to feel there is something good, a possibility of some kindness and happiness at the end. YMMV –Alice

  2. LaideeMarjorie on September 22, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    I am taking my literary preparation for my first Bouchercon seriously (but in a fun way) and I am reading as many of the books of attending authors as I can.

    That said, I have truly liked everything that I have read so far. The list of authors includes (thus far) Laurie R. King (duh!), Laura Lippman (all of the Tess Monaghans to get the local Baltimore vibe), Rennie Airth, Deborah Crombie (the first four of the Kincaid/James series so far), Marcia Talley (another Maryland author), Louise Penny, Karen Olson (a local Connecticut author) and John Harvey.

    I have enjoyed them all, but when I came to the end of the John Harvey book (the first in his Charlie Resnick series, “Lonely Hearts”) I wanted to scream. It just suddenly came to a screeching halt. It felt like someone had ripped the last five pages out of the book where things usually get a bit tied up. I want a book to end with the feeling of a journey taken and completed. But this was as if I never got out of baggage claims at the airport. The rest of the book is so well written that I am at a loss to understand why it ended the way it did. I am afraid to read the next one in the series in case it ends the same way!

    –Marjorie

  3. Carlina on September 22, 2008 at 3:28 pm

    Oh god…that’s…just…well…I hate it when books do that. There’s an abruptness to it and just…it doesn’t fit in…ugh.

    Books I’ve read and liked then wanted to throw at the wall..Greg Bear’s “Darwin’s Radio.” It was a great book, well-researched, well-thought out, get anthropological ideas and even pushing Darwinian evolution forward, but the end was horrible. I literally was like WTH. Everything was great until that last chapter. It wasn’t what I was expecting and it was bad…very, very bad. He should have just ended it at the chapter before the last…

    I’m about to read “The Last Sherlock Holmes Story.” I’ve been dying to read it so we’ll see how it goes. Holmes and the Whitechapel Murders. I’ll keep you posted if you’re interest.

  4. baylorgirl on September 22, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    Several times I’ve read books whose endings make me want to chuck it across the room. The most recent being:

    **The Wild Girl, by Jim Fergus (why does the character Ned have to walk away from the girl he loves?)

    **I just read that one weeks ago, and the end truly hacked me off

  5. Pat Floyd on September 22, 2008 at 5:21 pm

    I deplore the current fashion for depressing books and tragic endings unless they truly illuminate some aspect of life and do it with beauty and drama. HAMLET and KING LEAR are a far cry from some of the drab books we are supposed to admire today. The tradition of fiction began with the storyteller. Genre fiction is popular because those writers haven’t forgotten. Storytellers write great books when they deal with important personal and social issues with insight, sensitivity, and beauty. JUSTICE HALL is such a book. I believe that to be truly human is to pay attention, to see the wonder of life, even when it is heartbreaking. Great writers help us do that.

    It was so long ago I don’t remember the details, but Sidney Shelton’s THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT had an ending that made it the only one of his books I’ve read. Peter Robinson’s AFTERMATH was for me a gruesome book by an author I’ve always enjoyed.

  6. Kerry on September 25, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    Grrrr! I don’t remember the name of it, but I once read a book in which the first-person narrator died — narrating all the while — about a chapter before the book ended. Which would have been fine, if the first several hundred pages had been presented as a diary or something, but they weren’t. And even if they were, said narrator died (again, narrating pretty much right up until the end) in a gun battle, and there was no mention of pen and paper between re-loads.

    I was thrown completely out of the story and, to this day, can’t figure out why an editor approved of such a thing.

  7. ladonna on September 26, 2008 at 8:51 am

    Just finished An Expert in Murder (the Josephine Tey mystery by Nicola Upson) which was really good and the ending was fine, everything was tied up neat and tidy, but now we have to have more!! I mean really — there she goes up the street after Archie and and and and … I really need to know how that whole relationship goes on!!

    But my absolute favorite line in the whole book is on page 279 — Josephine has made a pot of tea and Lydia asks if there is enough for two. “There’s plenty,” Josephine said …. “But I’m afraid it’s proper tea, not the scented apology for a hot drink that you prefer.” Wonderful!! My sentiments exactly. I’m going to have that made into a poster!!

  8. GoldensRule on September 30, 2008 at 10:30 pm

    I remember feeling that way about The Witching Hour by Anne Rice. Beautifully, beautifully written – I was totally immersed in it. But the ending destroyed the whole thing for me. I never tried another one of her novels.

  9. crookedneedles on October 3, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    I love that you wrote about this. The last Oprah book I read (and I do mean LAST, except for the classics she chooses that I’ve already read) was Fall on Your Knees. Maybe I should have figured it out before the end, but reading it was excrutiating and if I read another Oprah book, it will be purely by accident.

    I’ve been noticing this trend of negativity with Oprah’s choices, and once I decided to read books which had won the Pulitzer and the Man Booker prizes as a way to expand my reading interests, I realized it began before Oprah. I read and was intrigued by Ian McEwan’s thought provoking Amsterdam, then got partly through Atonement before I became so indignant that I read the last chapter, and after reading it, was still fuming. For me, it was as infuriating as the film, The Player – the injustice wasn’t even thought provoking, it was downright depressing.

    Recent Pulitzer winner The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao kept me hoping throughout, and I still haven’t decided how I feel about the end. I’ve been thinking about the use of the word “wondrous” with regard to Oscar and just haven’t made the connection. Pulitzer winner, Middlesex, on the other hand, seemed a little apalling from the beginning, even while it kept me curious throughout.

    I don’t mind being challenged or a little uncomfortable as I read, but I’ll stick with intelligent, tantalizing novels like yours, that I want to own to read over and over.

  10. mspeed44 on October 4, 2008 at 11:18 pm

    I’ve thrown more books across the room than I want to mention! And most of Oprah’s books I avoid like a plague–reasons sited by others. Several years ago, I actually picked up a pen and wrote a better ending to a best seller of a massively popular author (JG initials). My entire family and several friends got a wonderful surprise when the black print stopped and my blue pen started.
    That said–about the time I had a 50th birthday, I started reading every book at its end. Yes, I read the ending first. Then I decide if I want to read the entire book. Not based on a happy ending, just the answer to the question “do I want to know how the story arrives at this end?” Most people freak out when I tell them this, but life is too darn short to spend hours reading hundreds of pages to throw a book across the room!!

  11. Arthur on January 5, 2019 at 6:43 pm

    I wish there were more comments and opinions from people who also read the book. Maybe also people who like the ending Wrobelski chose. Mine is pretty much the same. I am disappointed as well because I don’t feel like enough thought is put into the end, that or I just haven’t understood or interpreted correctly. Regardless of whether the end is happy or sad, give me something more meaty! Something that relates to the essence of the story, puts puzzle pieces together. The last sentence about the dog making a choice seems like a clumsy try at that to me. (And this fact is not really intertwined in what I really want to know about: many mysteries seem to be set up to fit together in the end – topics concerning the reasons for Claude’s actions, the history or symbolism of the poison from South Korea, the intriguing plans Claude had with the Sawtelle dogs.. Having everyone “just” die seems like an easy way out, a lazy way to end a story that seemed built up on some dark secret.

    • Laurie King on January 6, 2019 at 10:25 am

      How funny, I just happened to glance at the Wrobleski book on my shelf yesterday and think about one-time wonders, those HUGE books like Edgar Sawtelle or The Historian that were the book of their year, from authors who never happened to hit the perfect combination of reader taste, the state of the world, and the enthusiasm of a publishing house all at once. And yes, you have to wonder if in this case the ending has something to do with it. Everyone in the mystery world knows that if the beginning sells the book, it’s the ending that sells the next book.

    • Ken on October 20, 2019 at 12:24 pm

      Thank you for your insightful comments! Wroblewski shows an abundance of storytelling and descriptive talent…until the nihilistic end. So damn foolish of him to leave the reader not knowing Trudy’s fate- the strongest of his creations. So foolish of him not to punish Claude who deserved vengeance of biblical proportions. He compares his own work to Hamlet, (a long shot at best), it’s more Cain and Abel with Cain allowed a simple and painless death. The investment in the dogs- all for naught. Glen Papineau, a bumbling side character, suffers the most with a life of handicap ahead of him. And Henry? Is there no denouement for him? Two dogs don’t make a life. Agree that the frustrating futility of this novel would resonate with Oprah.

      • Laurie King on October 20, 2019 at 8:40 pm

        Yes–thank you, Oprah, for highlighting so many book for me to avoid.
        Laurie

  12. Cindy Neilsen on May 13, 2019 at 6:06 pm

    I seem to be in the minority, because I loved the entire book, ending and all. It wasn’t what I expected, but after reading it, I couldn’t envision any other ending. So what if it’s sad. Sometimes life is sad.

    • Kay coleman on November 14, 2019 at 1:44 pm

      Yes life is sad but a friend sent me this Sawtelle book to read as i do chemo…and now I feel even worse. I need to believe that intelligence and decency and love will count in the end….and all that went up in smoke thanks to this awful ending.

      • Laurie King on November 14, 2019 at 2:42 pm

        Ooh, sorry–both for the chemo and for the depressing addition. Time for a re-read of Beekeeper, to take the taste out of your mouth?
        My thoughts are with you,
        Laurie

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