Personally, if only given one choice I’d far prefer a bad beginning to a bad ending. The beginning sets the stage and opens the book, but who are we kidding? We’re romance readers. The ending’s the clincher. The ending’s our couple’s future. It’s the reader’s conviction that everything we just read is legit. If I don’t believe in the happy ending, then the story is sunk.
I’ve read hundreds of romance novels now, and I’ve got them pretty well sorted out. Many romance novels end in a big sexfest, but I’ve never liked these – the book feels like it’s celebrating hormones rather than hearts. Then there are Hallmark endings – you know which ones I’m talking about. They melt in each other’s arms. They declare undying love eternal. They become Lord Virile and Lady Fertile. They are, in fact, so busy being in love I’m more certain they aren’t. Saccharine endings do not appeal to me because they dwell in fairyland, and I like my stories dosed with reality.
Overall, I’m definitely a fan of “less is more”. No epilogues, thank you very much – I prefer to leave the future to my imagination. Almost Heaven by Judith McNaught sticks out as one of the few mushy epilogues that works for me. But then, Ian and Elizabeth are larger than life and need an emotional, soaring, music-swelling-while-waves-crash happy ending. With their story, I can dream for a while and leave reality for mere mortals. Their ending embodies the fairy tale happily-ever-after.
Generally, though, the endings I favour are the last step in the development of the romance, the ones that provide character resolution and closure. Grovels fit very nicely here – witness Bobby Tom Denton in Heaven, Texas by Susan Elizabeth Phillips or Grey in His Comfort and Joy by Jessica Bird. (I haven’t read Lady Gallant by Suzanne Robinson but I’ve heard the grovel there is excellent.) These heroes have wronged their heroines and they need to apologize for their idiocy before she leaves forever. And so they’re left doing things like jumping onto running trains and proposing in public, or begging forgiveness while an entire Texan town troops out to see an ex-footballer on his knees. Both scenes are so gloriously over the top, I can’t help but sigh, but they also close the character arc – and very satisfactorily too.
But if I’m going to be picky (and clearly I am), I can only think of three endings that I’d call unique. Many readers have cited Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me as one of the few romances whose couple remain childless and happy, and it seems right that Min and Cal would be so. Many people like children and get along with them, but don’t need them to be complete, and I hear of more and more people deciding to remain childless unless through adoption – and I mean real people, not celebrities. Blood may still be thicker than water, but in some ways it’s thinning as humans gather in families that cross borders and cultures. Bet Me’s ending strikes me not only as unconventional in romance, but also more indicative of reality than the hyper-fertile heroines we normally encounter.
The second ending I remember well is equally unique, but for a different reason. Long before I read Connie Brockway’s All Through Night I’d read Marianne Stillings’s review, and she clearly loved the last page so much I had to read the book myself. And my reaction as an immature, uncomplicated teenager was that it was underwritten, slightly depressing, and more than a little weird. Where was the big kiss? Where was the coital bliss?! Where were the kids and the former couples all living happily ever after??!! Then years later I re-read it. Underwritten became sparse, depressing became poignant, and weird became wonderfully atmospheric. It’s about as un-romance novel-y as you could get, and it’s the perfect closing to damned fine book. I could not picture anything else for Jack and Anne.
But I have to say, when it comes to one-in-a-million endings, I take my hat off to Lady of Conquest by Teresa Medeiros which has hands down the worst last line of any romance I’ve ever read: “The waves crashed on the rocks below in giggling rhythm, like the laughter of one hysterical dwarf.” Now, this book was bad enough without paying tribute to a homicidal, maniacal dwarf. If the author had chosen to end on a conventional “I’ll love you ‘til the end of time, kissy kissy smooch smooch,” I’d have scoffed and then forgotten about the book. As it is, my reaction was the same as the book’s reviewer, Blythe Barnhill : I chucked it at the wall.
That’s the thing about endings – it can make or break the book. I can forgive slow beginnings or dragging middles, but I could never forgive an ending that ruined the vision of future happiness. You don’t ever mess with a happily-ever-after.
What are your favourite last lines or endings? Least favorite ones? Do you care for epilogues? Are there particular ending types that strike your romantic bone?
– Jean AAR