Several years ago—I think it was in 2008, not long after the release of my third novel—I received an unsolicited letter from an independent publicist in California who was pitching her services. She said she had read my books and was impressed by the strength of my literary voice, my pacing, and the overall quality of my writing. She did, however, say that she thought my books would be better—as I recall, the phrase she used was “more respected”—if I resisted the urge to tie up plots with “a great big bow.” I did not engage her services.
Since then, I’ve written many other novels—11 total—as well as three novellas. As you might imagine, I’ve collected a lot of reviews in that time, most of them positive. But I’ve noticed something odd in some of those reviews, a kind of backhanded compliment that reads more or less like this: “In spite of the happy ending, this is really a good book.”
I am grateful to those reviewers and delighted to know that they enjoyed my novels. But there’s something that’s been bothering me for a long time, a question I’ve been begging to ask: When did happiness fall out of fashion? And why is it surprising that a novel with a happy ending can be engaging, well written, and even intelligent?
After all, Dickens and Austen were unabashed purveyors of happy endings, and it seemed to work out pretty well for them and their readers. Even today, readers continue to devour novels by Austen and Dickens with gusto and enormous pleasure.
Yes, I understand that we live in a postmodern age, an age more complicated than those preceding it, in which we face myriad problems—personal, relational, societal, political, environmental, and spiritual—that writers have the freedom and courage to address and confront. That’s a fine and noble thing for a writer to do.
Individual lives, and even whole societies, can be changed for the better by novels that illuminate and expose the world’s problems with grit and realism. I have read many such books in my lifetime: wonderfully written books that have stayed with me long after the cover was closed; stories that have caused me to examine and sometimes alter my thoughts, behaviors, and attitudes. I have been made better by these books, as has the world. Of course, we’ve a long way to go yet, the world and I. Still, it’s a start.
But even in this complex, problematic postmodern age, have we outgrown the need for happy endings? I don’t think so.
Today, as in the era of Austen and Dickens, readers still need, and even crave, happy endings. Why? Because happy endings provide hope, instilling the belief that obstacles can be overcome, love can last, fences can be mended, and good can triumph. Writing books with happy endings: this, too, is a fine and noble occupation for a writer.
In a world devoid of hope, what intelligent being would attempt to tackle the seemingly insurmountable problems of our age? If there is no possibility of a happy ending, what is the point of striving for one?
I have read many happily ended novels in my lifetime, stories that have resonated with me and given me courage to go forward in the face of impossible odds, to bank on hope in a world that seems bankrupt. And because reading those books gave me the courage to move forward, sometimes things worked out. Not always, but sometimes.
My life has been made better by these books too, and because of my response to them, so have the lives of my family, friends, and community, people I love as well as people I barely know. That’s not the whole world, I realize; it’s barely even a slice. We’ve a long way to go, the world and I. Still, it’s a start.
Because I am grateful for the writers who have given me the gift of hope, and also because it’s what I’m really good at, my new book, The Second Sister, has a happy ending.
My characters will face serious, thought-provoking problems. They will suffer and grieve and laugh and cry, and readers, recognizing some piece of themselves in the realistically drawn, often flawed humanity of those characters and the complications of the plot, will, I hope, laugh and cry with them. Though every problem won’t necessarily be tied up with a big bow, when the characters and readers reach the last page together, there will be happiness and hope.
If that is unfashionable, so be it. I make no apologies. Because in this and every age, the books that readers remember and return to are those that wrap up with that famous and enduring ending: “And they lived happily ever after.”
Marie Bostwick’s newest novel, The Second Sister, was published by Kensington in April 2015.