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Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Myth of Happiness

The other day I was in the car with my 21-year-old nieces, and we were talking about books. One of them listed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as their all-time fave, despite the "unhappy" ending. In fact, she was miffed with the movie version that Hollywoodized the end. Not that she prefers UHEA (Unhappily Ever After) but that some stories need one to be true to themselves.

This is very interesting to a romance writer, whose books MUST include some kind of HEA--or, in the words of Romance Writer's of America--an "emotionally satisfying" ending.

But can't a story be emotionally satisfying without the characters walking off hand-in-hand into the sunset?

Romeo and Juliet, for example. Yes, it would be nice if Juliet woke in time to prevent Romeo from swallowing the poison and her own resulting suicide. But everything leads up to this ending. The feuding families, the secrets, the deaths of other loved ones. How else could the story have ended? The best the lovers could have hoped for was to run away together. And then what? With their families' against them, how would they have survived? Sad though the ending is, it's fitting.

Ian McEwan's Atonement, on the other hand, though beautifully written, concludes with an emotionally UN-satisfying ending--precisely because the author gives you a HEA, then takes it away. Pure trickery, in my opinion. Literary chicanery. (For more on that, see my rant on 9/3/09/).

Recently, I came across a discussion on the Romantic
Times forums about my 2007 book, Dead Shot. The posters complained because I didn't solve the subplot mystery--who killed my main character's mother. Since this murder shaped the main character--both professionally and personally--their idea of HEA meant the killer should be caught. So to them the ending was emotionally unsatisfying, despite HEAs everywhere else. BTW--I chose that ending because solving this 25-year-old murder seemed too pat and unrealistic. I wanted my heroine to learn to live--fully and happily--despite not knowing. Ambiguity is the way of the world. Sometimes we have to choose happiness without certainty.

But I do see their point. Maybe the story pointed too strongly to the subplot, leading readers to expect the killer to be caught--an unintended consequence of the way I told the story.

So--happy or unhappy? As a romance writer I prefer my HEAs, but not every story deserves one. So, I'm curious--what other books/movies/stories, etc. end badly but in a good way?

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Anonymous Beth said...


March 29, 2010 at 7:23 AM  
Blogger Annie Solomon said...

Ah, yes--Casablanca! The perfect "bad" ending. Good one, Beth!

March 29, 2010 at 9:25 AM  

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