Have you ever read any books so captivating that you disappeared inside the world of their characters, that you stole away and read another page and another page every chance you got? And when you got closer to the end, your heart filled with melancholy because you’d soon be saying goodbye to that world? And then the ending just kind of…sucked?
Yeah. I hate that, too.
That happened when I read Nicholas Evans’ first novel, The Horse Whisperer. While not exactly the greatest of writing, I let myself get tangled up in the love story. I hung on the central conflict of Grace MacLean’s heart: her husband, Sam, or the cowboy, Tom? Oh, how she vacillated! How she was torn asunder! And then…just when you think she’s chosen to give up her city-girl ways and ride off into the sunset…Tom falls off his horse, hits his head on a rock and dies. (FYI, the movie has a very different ending.)
I threw the book across the room. Not that I harbored any secret passion for the dude; cowboys aren’t my style. But Nicholas, HOW COULD YOU DO THAT TO ME? You get me all worked up for the resolution of the central conflict and then—surprise!—you take away the protagonist’s responsibility. Completely abdicate your role as the author by basically saying, “So much for your decision-making capabilities. Let’s just take that silly little problem away from you.”
I just had a similar, although not as vociferous, experience with a book I just finished reading, The Heretic’s Daughter, by Kathleen Kent, a historical novel set during the Salem witch trials of the late 1600s. (Spoiler alert if you haven’t read it…) The protagonist is, you guessed it, the heretic Martha Carrier’s daughter, Sarah. She is an old woman, now, looking back on the ten-year-old girl she was at the time of the trials. The writing is lush and poignant, the situation horrific. (Kent is a descendant of Martha Carrier and grew up hearing stories about her.) At one point, before Martha is taken away to prison for merely being her authentic, bold self, she entrusts Sarah with a red-covered ledger book that is supposedly the written history of the Carrier family. (The father had come to the new world from Wales, under a veil of mystery.) This book could be the undoing of the family, Martha tells Sarah, and orders her to guard it well, never show it to her father because he doesn’t know it exists, and not read it until she’s “of age” to understand.
So the story rolls along, through the trials, the executions, and finally the breath of sanity that frees the remaining prisoners and stops the witch hunts. Sarah narrates, very quickly, the rest of her life, taking a brief pause to mention the red book. It confirms that her father had had a prominent role in Oliver Cromwell’s army.
Okay. Big deal. She’d basically heard as much through town gossip. And everyone seemed to be afraid of her father. So the harm to their family from actual knowledge of this secret would be…?
ARGH! The payoff should have been bigger. Bolder. What secret could be worth all that real estate in the story? Not enough of a payoff, in my opinion. It’s like the quote attributed to Chekhov about the gun – that if you show it, you have to shoot it.
And you? Have you ever read any beautiful books that disappointed you in the end?