When I was a teenager, my aunt recommended I read Gone With the Wind. I remember the dreamy look on her face, the sigh as she told me how romantic the book was. She said: “Every time I read the book, I pray that it will end differently, that he will not leave, that something will make him stay.”
As a reader, I love happy endings. I am not usually fond of books that end like wisps of thread in the wind, without a satisfying conclusion. I rarely read sad books. In books, as in life, I love the romantic, happy ending, the hero and the heroine rambling barefoot on the beach under the smiling full moon, their hands swinging together in tune to the beat of a faraway melody.
As a writer, other forces are at work in me. The happily-ever-after romantic ending grates on my nerves. I watch my strong-minded, smart, independent protagonist and think: She has to end up with a guy? No way. She has grown so much in the book. She has found confidence in herself. I don’t want her to give that wonderful freedom away. My readers disagreed. “She has to find a prince,” they argued. “Any prince. Some kind of prince. But the story must end with a prince.”
What is it about the romantic happily-ever-after that appeals to readers? Even picture books have their share of romance. I think, really, only middle grade novels are free of it. My nine-year-old daughter certainly expresses the “ew” factor if anyone tries a smooch in a book. I can think of some beloved books that do not end hand in hand, but my favorites, the ones that I read again and again, all have bells ringing for the beau and his belle. Elizabeth marries Darcy. Ivanhoe marries Rowena. Lord of the Rings? Yes, romance. War and Peace? Of course.
Truth be told, I don’t think the ending of Gone with the Wind is sad. Faced with Rhett leaving, Scarlet realizes that she loves him. As the spectator to her heart’s misadventures, however, I am not sure that I trust her love. I want her to grow, to expand her horizons, to learn who she is inside. She has been silly the whole book through. The ending is Scarlet’s opportunity to grow up.
I’ve been lucky to have the latest chapter in my life wrapped up in romance. My daughter’s “ew” resounds in our house a lot, as does: “No kissies and no huggies!” But one chapter of life leads into another, all merging together into one story whose end is never in sight. I like the idea of the independent heroine walking with confidence into the sunset, ready for whatever experience comes her way. But I admit, I like it too when she walks off into the sunset, confident and assured, and there’s a man’s arm linked in her own.
How do your favorite books end? Do you too have s soft spot in your heart for the happily ever after?