Book endings and authors’ obligations to readers

Deborah Harkness provided me some useful information but no answers.
Deborah Harkness provided me some useful information but no answers.

It’s been several weeks since I finished reading the final book in the “All Souls” trilogy by Deborah Harkness, The Book of Life, and after writing a few reviews of it for various sites and chewing on my ideas for some time, I had the opportunity to attend Harkness’ book signing in San Francisco a couple of days ago. After asking the author two questions during the open Q&A and then one “spoiler” question while she signed my books, I still have mixed feelings about how the series concluded.

I’ll just say that this observation is a little spoiler-ish but not in detail, so if you have not read the final book, then skip over this paragraph: I felt that many of the questions I had about Ashmole 782, the elusive and strange magical manuscript introduced in the very beginning of A Discovery of Witches, were not answered. And while some of my questions may be just “my own” or somewhat indirect, some were directly brought up by the characters in the book quite early on. And THEY WERE NOT RESOLVED. ARRRGGGGH. Considering that this was a huge part of the plot of the series, I felt gypped as a reader (of 1700 pages, no less) that they were left open. Talk about unsatisfactory. So I asked Harkness this: “Do YOU know where the book came from, who made it, etc.?” And she immediately and firmly responded with a “yes.”

She KNOWS, and she did not tell readers? Whaaaat?

Harkness told me this: “Everything readers know in the book comes from the point of view of Diana and the other characters. She doesn’t really know (at the end of the series) yet the answers to these questions, so readers don’t.”

During the hour of the author reading from the book, talking about it and herself, and then doing Q&A, she said a few things that are relevant: One, she really intended to keep the series as a trilogy, so as she explored the story while writing, she had to limit herself so it wouldn’t get unwieldy. Two (and I’m piecing this together a bit), I think she said, essentially, that anyone’s full story is never contained in a book. Things happen before and things happen after. The book is then a part of the whole story. And (after someone observed that the last book was the darkest of the series) she was trying to show what happens in a relationship after the fun, easy, falling-in-love part, where it gets trickier and is more work, and so on. So I’m going to extrapolate that she doesn’t intend for her writing to “tie everything up in a bow” at the end. But the part of their lives that is the pertinent story is captured and pinned down a bit within the pages of the series.

Now here’s where this gets interesting. Some readers can get up in arms when a story doesn’t end the way they expect, or it doesn’t end “happily” or it doesn’t tie up all the loose strings. And it may show a sign of reader immaturity when one gets mad that a story doesn’t end with a happily ever after — life, after all, is never that simple and “satisfying,” and books are best when they reflect the messiness and realities of life. So at what point should readers rightly expect some kind of conclusion?

Here’s my take: it depends on the type of book (genre) and how thoroughly expectations were set up in the book and plot. In a mystery, for example, it’s understood that various disparate elements are going to be introduced and then the mystery “solved” at the end, with those elements put together in certain ways to provide a satisfactory ending, leaving the reader with the “aha!” feeling of “That’s why all those items were important.” In a memoir, one may fairly reasonably expect the author to recount parts of his or her life that relate to a certain theme, a story arc that includes pertinent facts, experiences, and observations, because it would be impossible and undesirable for that person to just sit down and write everything that’s happened without giving it shape, form, or meaning.

Regarding the expectations, if a few things are simply mentioned as facts that might give a better idea of characters’ personalities, motivations, expectations, development, etc., they don’t require further attention by the author. But if the book frequently mentions certain plot elements and has the characters and readers questioning them as a large part of the book and plot, they need to be answered.

In the case of the All Souls series, as Harkness put it in her talk, the three “main characters” are Diana, the historian and witch; Matthew, the vampire and researcher; and Ashmole 782, the manuscript. Since she herself said that explicitly and since all of the book’s promotional materials and synopses focus on those three characters, one rightly expects to get questions answered about them. We learn quite a lot about Matthew and Diana’s histories (where they came from), their personalities, and their fates. We don’t know all the details about what will happen to them in the long term, but their stories as presented in the books are concluded well and make sense. But Ashmole 782, as a “main character,” gets short shrift. We know where it ends up, but we still have no idea where it came from and why. I appreciate that Harkness says readers only know what Diana and the other characters know, and that she had to keep the series to a manageable size, but I still feel she did not do her job as an author and conclude that part of the story. If she had to cut out other things to still keep it manageable, or if she had to make it a little longer so readers could come along to the point Diana knew more, then so be it.

Harkness did make one comment that gave me some hope for future satisfaction: I said, “I’d really like to know what you know!” and she responded something along the lines of “You will.” But since she said she won’t be writing more about Diana and Matthew, but may revisit the “world” of the books to explore other characters and stories, I’m not sure how that might come about. So we shall see.

What do you say? How much should readers expect in these situations?

Reading life

lifeandlims View All →

I'm a book reviewer, editor, and writer with four daughters and tons of projects always keeping me hopping. I blog at Life and Lims and run the book review site Rated Reads.

3 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I have just finished reading “The Book of Life” and can’t agree more with your assessment. I have poured over review after review in places like Amazon.com, and am totally confused by the hundreds of 5 star reviews with titles such as “Great Ending!”. IMHO, the book did not end satisfactorily at all, for the very reasons you stated. Ms. Harkness’s comments make no sense, and I like your analogy with mysteries. It’s as if the murderer isn’t revealed, but the author tells you they know who done it. I guess you can make a case that a story doesn’t have to follow a formula, but given the constant questioning, within the book itself, of what The Book of Life is, I am dumbfounded as to why the answers were not forthcoming. One gives some leeway for the previous books, as the expectation is that all (or most) would be revealed in the finale. But it doesn’t come close. It’s not half-answered, it’s non-answered.

    My other major criticism was that so many of the characters’ reactions just weren’t credible, particularly the warmbloods. How many people do you know who, after being told that witches, demons, and vampires exist, would just shrug it off as if they’d been told it’s going to rain tomorrow? Fantasies by definition contain elements that are counter to our understanding of the world, but once you create that world the inner reactions must ring true, and for me, so much did not.

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