Happy ending, nice and tidy
It’s a rule I learned in school
Marc Blitzstein’s translation of Bertholt Brecht’s lyrics to the finale of The Threepenny Opera is laced with irony. Life, the song goes on to say, does not work out so neatly, with Queen Victoria’s messenger riding to the rescue.
In the lively discussion in response to my blog last week about series and in particular C.S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr series and whether Sebastian would end up with Kat or Hero, there was, I realize, an implicit assumption by all of us (including me) that Sebastian at least would have a happy ending. And I suspect he will. Though one of the things that both delights me and sets me on edge as a reader in mystery series, as opposed to romances, is that the happy ending isn’t guaranteed. Which for me as a reader can make it that much sweeter (one of my favorite romantic endings is to Barbara Hambly’s Darwath Trilogy, because it seems so hard-fought for). But also leaves the door nerve-wrackingly open to other possibilities.
I love happy endings. I root for them against all odds, I worry about favorite characters, I rewrite “unsatisfactory” stories in my head. And some of my favorite stories don’t have happy endings, and, I have to admit, wouldn’t be the better for them. I recenty saw the final dress of a breathtaking production of “La Bohème” at San Francisco Opera, which left me thinking about happy endings and genre conventions. “La Bohème” emphatically doesn’t have one (I usually start crying in Act I–this time was no exception). On the other hand, “Rent,” based on the same story, does have a happy ending. I loved “Rent,” but the ending left me completely baffled, and in a sense ruined the show for me. I thought this was because I’d seen “La Bohème” (I saw it with my friend Penny, who also knows ‘Bohème” well and had the same reaction). But I saw the “Bohème” dress rehearsal with my friend Greg (one of the designers of this site). Greg said he’d seen “Rent” before he’d seen “Bohème” and he found the ending of “Rent” jarring as well. I love and adore happy endings. But not all stories, even–perhaps especially–not all love stories, work with a happy ending. When Mimì came in in the last act of “Bohème,” I had a moment of thinking “oh, I don’t want her to die.” And yet a different ending takes something away from the power of the story.
As a writer, I like the possibility of my stories not ending happily, if that makes any sense. I was going to say I don’t think I’d ever write a non-happy ending, but when I thought about it, I don’t think I’d precisely call the endings of Secrets of a Lady and Beneath a Silent Moon “happy.” For one thing, it’s an ongoing series, to the story doesn’t really end. I think I’d call the ending of Secrets “hopeful.” And the ending of Beneath “bittersweet.” Tinged with hope perhaps.
How do you feel about endings? Favorite examples to suggest of happy or non-happy endings? Or something in between? Has a jarring ending ever damaged a book for you? How would you describe the endings of Secrets and Beneath?
This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Lady Frances to Raoul, describing Mélanie’s first ball in the Berkeley Square house.