One of the publishers we sent my novel to wants a rewrite of the ending. While their readers said they loved the first 2/3 of the novel (the novel is divided into 3 parts), they felt I tried a little too hard to tie up all the loose threads into what they called an “uber happy” ending for my characters.
I can’t say I’m surprised by this reaction. I too worried that I might have tied up the novel in too pretty a bow. Perhaps I should have left at least one or two threads dangling for the reader to play with. But I believed, despite that, the transformations of the characters, their coming to grips with their past, their fears, their demons, their very real struggles and eventual triumphs are what we all hope to find at the end of our stories, both the real and the imagined.
Happy does happen, after all.
But, of course, in reality, our stories and struggles do not end as they do in a novel. Our lives keep on going after that final page, whether it ends on a high note or a low. We all know that. So what’s the harm of ending the novel on an upbeat tick?
I wanted that for them, for these deeply flawed characters who I had come to love. Weren’t their flaws and failings, their addictions and anxieties, their grief and doubts and fears enough grit to ground the story? Couldn’t we soar a bit too, near the end?
Happy happens too, right?
But does it last?
Probably the most improbable part of my ending is the struggling son’s recovery from heroin addiction. Not an easy thing to do. The statistics are all against it. Few survive, and those who do never feel completely free. It’s always there, slippery beneath their feet, breathing hard down their necks, a giant question mark dangling on the horizon like a sharp, deadly hook.
Some parts of this novel are based loosely on my son’s struggle with heroin addiction. For all I tried, I never could completely wean him of his addiction. I could help him: Pull him off the street, put him into rehab, pick him up from jail, search for the medication and counseling he needed; call an ambulance when he overdosed.
Sometimes it worked. Woven through his battles with addiction are the times he won, the year, or two, or three he was free and happy and thriving. But it never lasted much more than that. Four, tops.
I always thought: If only he would listen to me, take my advice, do what I say; if I could lock him in a closet and keep him safe; if I could trade places with him, get into his skin and live his life for him, beat down the addiction once and for all and then give him his life back again, I would. But I couldn’t. I never could control him any more than he could control his addiction.
But I could control my characters. I could manage their recovery. I could give them a happy ending. It does happen, doesn’t it?
So I’m rewriting the end of my novel with that sharp, thorny question mark dangling in the air. As it always does, for each of us, whether we struggle with addiction or not.
Paradise burns to the ground. Mudslides swallow homes. Daughters lose babies. Sons relapse. Again, and again, and again.
But strangely, miraculously, hope never dies. Not completely. Homes are rebuilt. Lives turned around. Marriages mended.
Families come together at Thanksgiving and look across the table at each other with all their flaws and fears, their unhealed hurts and scars, and they love what they see. Through it all, despite it all, they just love.
That’s what my novel is all about. That “despite it all” kind of love, happy ending or not.