Jessica Soffer's Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots is a novel about families, food, and facing uncomfortable truths. It also culminates in a revealing and satisfying ending that brings all its pages together. For Tip Sheet, Soffer shared 10 of her favorite endings in books.
I don’t like to play favorites. It’s not right. Sometimes, it’s an act in futility. Apples and oranges and such, especially in literature. But here we are. Ten Best Book Endings, according to me, a woman who has read as much as she possibly could during her twenty-seven years and who wishes every day for more reading time so that she could say “Ten Best,” and feel more certain. Until then, “best” is a moving target—and I’m not even in possession of all the darts.
Bottom line: the most we can look for is an end that justifies, honors, makes meaningful the means. And sometimes we might hope for an end that does more: an end that outdoes the means. Sometimes, a deftly plotted twist will do the trick, or a really grand grand finale, or a thought so moving, so appropriate that we write it down and keep it in our wallets for years. When endings work they feel both inevitable and earned, which just doesn’t happen in real life where nothing is ever still long enough to really end at all. And so good endings must do more than life: honoring what’s come before, swelling with the promise of what’s to come, and hovering in exactly the right place so that when it’s over, it’s hardly over. It’s just right.
1. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace - In an interview with the Boston Phoenix, Wallace said, “Plot wise, the book doesn’t come to a resolution. But if the readers perceive it as me giving them the finger, then I haven’t done my job. On the surface it might seem like it just stops. But it’s supposed to stop and then kind of hum and project. Musically and emotionally, it’s a pitch that seemed right.”
If you’re looking for a satisfying ending, a comprehensible ending, even a startlingly beautiful ending, look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for the kind of ending that will make you throw the book across the room and start all over again on page one because you know that something important just happened and you’ll be damned if you’re not going to be able to articulate what, read Infinite Jest. This end justifies not only the means, but Round Deux, if you’re up for it.
2. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro - Stevens, our narrator, is going out on a limb, pursuing love after a life of anything but. We’re rooting for him, for love, holding our breath, wishing. In the end, Stevens makes a choice and it might be a letdown. And yet, it’s exactly appropriate. He acts according to the lines in which he was drawn. Fiction, at its best, brings us so close, brings us to our knees, and then reminds us, however abruptly, perhaps disappointingly, of the difference between us and them. We are not Stevens. Stevens is Stevens. And we are better for knowing him: why he didn’t, couldn’t, and why we might have but won’t.
3. Atonement by Ian McEwan - All’s fair in love and postscripts and novel writing about novel writing. Or isn’t it? The jury is still out. McEwan’s novelist narrator gives us a version of things, and then takes that version away when she reveals having imagined the series of events she’s just put forth as true. “WTF,” you might say. Or else, “Really? She (the narrator) can do that? He (McEwan) can do that?” Did it. Done. So whether you feel duped or vindictive or gullible or disappointed, it is certain that McEwan’s ending will make you reconsider the novel’s first 300 pages, how you read them, how you maybe should have, how you trusted the narrator, and how you trust the people you trust. You won’t fall so easily next time, or maybe—in McEwan’s hands—you will.
4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald - Does it make it a “best” ending if it includes the only last line that you can call to memory on a whim? And learned how to say in Spanish? And think about every time you try to end anything: a short story or office memo or tirade or relationship? Yes. The answer is yes. The ending nails it: compounds (thematically, emotionally, tonally) everything that the first 180 pages suggest, and suggest until the very last moment, that there can be no way for this book to end—in the same way that there’s no way time can end, or an era can end, or a legacy. And yet it does, self-referentially, perfectly, by not ending, but by “beat[ing] on, [being] born back ceaselessly into the past.”
5. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway - It’s not just the doozie of a last line—“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”—that justifies this novel’s inclusion on this list (though the poetic diagnosis of an entire generation in just six words does help), but the entire third section, which so gracefully ties up the novel’s themes of disillusionment and reality, wistfulness and melancholy and “damned tragedy,” as Hemingway calls it. We know how things are going to turn out from the get-go, but it’s not until the end that we remember that fact, and realize how much we cared anyway.
6. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk - A real aw-shit-ending, if I ever knew one—and open to interpretation. Either, we’re in the realest part of the real world (a mental institution) or we’re in heaven. And either way, the mind keeps playing, or alternate worlds keep playing, depending, and we can’t really find our footing. “Whose in charge here?” is a great question, but it won’t be answered even if you shout. Palahniuk comes dangerously close to using that very-no-good-bad concept/line, “And then I woke up,” without actually ever needing to use it because he does us one better. He never tells us if we’ve fallen asleep.
7. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez - It’s a tricky business, endings. Sometimes an epigraph can help. Sometimes a hint of happiness. Sometimes, it helps to get rid of all your characters and future generations so that readers are not left wondering, worrying, dealing with closure on their own terms. Cue: hurricane. But this is not the easy way out. This entire novel is self-referential, a meta-text, playing on the ideas of literature and culture and the “New World.” It is the very fact of this book that gives meaning to Macondo, its beginnings, its middle, and, most importantly, its end.
8. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf - This ending wins because. Just because. Because of the rhythm of it. Because it’s quiet and poignant and delicate. Because at the end of the day (literally, a Wednesday in June) death is no longer crushing to our Clarissa Dalloway. “Fear no more”—Shakespeare’s line from Cymbeline is repeated—“the heat of the sun.” Because Mrs. Dalloway finally feels “seen.” And because she has everything to do with Virginia who finally found relief from the sun in her way, a different way, and we cannot not think of that and not be bolstered somehow. Because this feels like a bigger ending than the ending of a book. It feels like the ending of a life and a beginning of something else, and it feels all right. Better.
9. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - Leaving your readers breathless for the grand finale (the final ten or so pages of a novel) is a feat no matter the circumstances, but especially so when you’ve been yanking those readers around—geographically, chronologically, from one character to the next for the preceding 320 pages. But breathless we are. By denying us the traditional beginning-middle-end format (there are pages and pages of diagrams exactly where a big fat climax might be) Egan leaves an irresistible trail of crumbs rather than putting her reader on a high-speed train to Conclusionville. Where we end up then is very subjective, very personal, very much about a feeling, and the only thing we want to do, the only thing we can do to get our bearings, is look back.
10. Being Dead by Jim Crace - This is the story of a loving couple, dead from the novel’s very first page on a beach. As their bodies decompose, we learn of their courtship, thirty-year marriage, and murder. Their end is at the novel’s beginning—and detailed gruesomely, painstakingly, throughout. There’s nothing more final than death. And yet, as the waves continue to crash, the shells and fragments of mollusks and fish and birds are arranged and rearranged by the surf, the reader can’t help but feel haunted by a sense of eternity. The thing about this ending, what makes it beautiful and unique, is that nothing ends. The most final of finals—death—has come and gone. The end and the ending is really just a point along the great cycle, in the very grand scheme.