DSC_0010A student and I exchanged book recommendations recently, in which I didn’t like the ending in either book, and my student, Brian, didn’t like the ending in one of them. The book we agreed on was The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell. The one we didn’t agree on was Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje.

Up until the last few pages, I loved Esme Lennox. I have used the opening paragraph in class as an example of an intriguing, unusual beginning, especially with an omniscient narrator who may not be reliable. The book shifts—sometimes abruptly—from past to present, and in and out of the point of view of three characters. Since one of those characters has Alzheimer’s, she does her own abrupt shifting in time. Slowly the reader pieces together the relevant details of Esme’s long life, as it begins in India and ends in a mental hospital in Scotland; and why Esme should matter to her great-niece, who never even knew her great-aunt existed until the hospital is closing down and Esme has to go somewhere.

And then, in those last pages, Esme acts in a way that stunned me. I understood the act even though I hated it; the author had given Esme ample motivation. But then the book simply ends, the world the author created fallen to pieces. As Brian said, it was as though the author got bored with the characters and just wanted the book over and done with. My feeling was that she began the book with a vision of how it should end, and didn’t realize when she got there that that ending did not fit the book she had written.

The other book, Divisadero, is wonderfully written (as is Esme Lennox). It too travels between past and present; the reader is again privy to the private thoughts of several characters. Some of the main characters are also related to each other. Yet in the early climax in the book, the family is ripped apart. And so we follow their three different stories, in uneven detail. Two of the three finally meet again; the third person never reappears in their lives.

That’s fine. The author’s choice, and it would have been a unicorn-and-rainbows ending if this family became whole again at the end of the book. Yet each separate narrative never really concludes. Of the two characters that find each other again, one is ill and we never learn if he recovers. The story of the solitary character is subsumed by the story of the early-twentieth-century French writer she is researching.

All intriguing stories, I told Brian, and all beautifully written, but I missed the connections between these people. And I wanted proper endings. Brian replied:

As for Divisadero, the book is somewhat atypical. The English Patient and The Cat’s Table supply far more resolution. Because it lacks plot from the start, Divisadero sets different expectations. Often enough, we tell each other stories that don’t have exact conclusions. Or we happily participate in conversations where two or more people insert memories or comments or associations, and the exchange is a spiral that never reaches its own tail. I think Ondaatje even alluded to that idea. We run out of time and the story is picked up later but seldom at the same place. I know: But is it literature?

I didn’t like the endings of these books for different reasons; and our judgments of works of art are bound to be somewhat subjective, no matter how hard we try to be objective (which is necessary in my lines of work, editor and writing teacher). I didn’t like how Esme ended because I wanted the author to satisfy my growing hope that all of her characters would find their ways to happier lives, if not necessarily a happy ending. And in Divisadero, well, I guess I wanted the same thing. I wanted the author to assure me that these three damaged people would come out all right in the end, even if the family structure that sustained them in their youth was irrevocably gone.

Still, I don’t regret having read either book, and I do recommend them to people—with warnings. But sometimes we want books that unsettle us, that disregard our expectations, that knock us out of a rut of the same old same old type of book, which I know I can settle into.

So if anyone has any unsettling books to recommend, let me know.

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In which I blog about the days I write and the days I don’t write; about teaching about writing; about reading (which is never enough); and occasionally about music, because sometimes a three-minute song can tell as good a story as a novel.

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