Image used under a Creative Commons license courtesy sgtfun.
It would be silly to presume, of course, that there’s one correct way to end a book. Every novel, every true story has its own internal rhythms and logics. And ultimately, if it’s well done, there’s only one possible ending that’s true to those rhythms and logics and to the characters who live in them and through them. And I tend to believe that it’s all right to have ambiguous endings, ones that don’t resolve everything. As Stephen Sondheim, and many, many others have so ably demonstrated for us, Happily Ever After is really just the beginning, anyway. It was an enormous mistake, for example, for J.K. Rowling to write the epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: the events themselves may have been true to the trajectories she established in the previous books, but the epilogue drained a huge amount of momentum and tension out of the book’s final pages. Her readers could handle that. All that she had to do, I think, was either establish whether Voldemort would win or lose, whether Harry would live or die, and her readers would be able to have their very highly personal visions of the events that came afterwards.But even though I have these principles, I struggle with them every year when I re-read one of my favorite books, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family. The book traces the stories of two intertwined families coming up in the Bronx, and the two women who grow up throughout the book’s events, Jessica and Coco. I sometimes find the tension of the book unbearable, even though I know Jessica survives her relationship with a terrifyingly abusive drug lord, or that Coco and her daughters don’t get bitten to death by the rats and fleas in their various apartments. The book ends, however, at a somewhat abrupt note. Whether that’s because it’s where LeBlance wrapped up her years of reporting, or because there was never going to be a particular and permanent turning point in Jessica and Coco’s lives, I’m not entirely certain, even though I was at a talk LeBlanc gave on the book, and it’s clear that in particular, Coco’s life came together a bit more. But even knowing that detail gave me a real hunger to know what happened to Jessica, to Coco, to their daughters and their sons. I desperately want to know that they’re all right, and I re-read the book every year because if I can’t have new information, I want to revisit the old information, the stories of resilience. Now, obviously Coco and Jessica are private citizens: they’re under no obligation to turn their lives into entertainment or educational programming for the likes of me. But I do wonder if if LeBlanc had found a more satisfying way to end the book if I wouldn’t revisit it so obsessively. I wouldn’t want perfectly tailored happy endings for Coco and Jessica: such a construction would feel false, both to the book’s tone and to the character’s lives. I don’t know what that more satisfying ending would have looked like, or what the key to divining the right ending for a particular piece of work is. In the words of Shakespeare in Love, “It’s a mystery.”