We all know the feeling: you make it through 300 pages of enthralling, creative fiction — only to the turn the very last page, and find yourself exclaiming, "That's it?!" Good books with disappointing endings are a very real danger. One could be hiding on your bookshelf right now.
It goes without saying that spoilers abound in this list. If you'd rather not know that the book you're currently holding has a terrible ending — and would prefer to crash headfirst into the terrible disappointment of a bad ending without my helpful red flags — well, proceed with caution. (Both through this list and through your perilous TBR pile.)
I'll admit, sometimes the disappointing ending is actually the best one. I won't lie: my emotional attachment to the characters can influence my judgment here. Ambiguous endings might be the most creative choice — but that doesn't make them any less disappointing when you've stayed up all night trying to read to the end.
And of course, sometimes a disappointing ending is just plain bad. Sometimes you get the feeling that it was late, the author was tired, and they just wanted to wrap it up and send it off to their editor so that they could go to bed. I'll let you choose which of the following 11 disappointing endings are which.
1. 'Little Women' by Louisa May Alcott
After we invested so much watching Laurie and Jo's relationship grow and blossom — Louisa May Alcott whipped the rug out from under our feet at the last minute, and married these two off to other people. Actually, Alcott herself was a pretty badass feminist, and didn't want Jo to have to marry anybody — which would have been a much better ending than the one her publishers insisted on: where Jo married the dull and terribly unsexy Professor Baer.
2. 'The Broom of the System' by David Foster Wallace
3. 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' by Lewis Carroll
Alice's adventures in Wonderland are some of the most creative and exciting adventures in fiction: she eats and drinks magical substances that affect her size; she argues with a hookah-smoking caterpillar; she plays croquet with a terrifying and blood-thirsty queen. And after all that, Lewis Carroll drops the most disappointing bombshell of all: it was all a dream.
4. 'In the Woods' by Tana French
5. 'My Sister's Keeper' by Jodi Picoult
OK, so I get that this ending is very clever and important and has an interesting message, but we've just spent the whole book becoming emotionally invested in the idea that Anna deserves the rights to her own body, and battling our consciences over whether or not she's doing the right thing — and then suddenly she reveals that she didn't care about fighting for her own body after all, and then she just dies. What?!
6. 'Atonement' by Ian McEwan
We know that when we're reading a fiction book, nothing in it really happened — but you don't usually expect the book itself to admit that. In Atonement, we make it almost to the end before the narrator admits that she's been making up all the happy parts, and that actually most of the characters died many years before.
7. 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' by J.K. Rowling
Look, I'm not saying writing a book is easy. I've just criticized the last few books for leaving sad or ambiguous endings — and now I'm about to criticize dear old J.K. for wrapping things up a little too neatly. But you have to admit, after seven years of exciting adventures, it was a little disappointing to hear that "all was well."
8. 'Road Ends' by Mary Lawson
Mary Lawson's ending to Road Ends is beautiful, but it's still super disappointing. Megan Cartwright, the sole daughter in a family of eight sons, has for years been responsible for holding her dysfunctional family together — until she finally escapes to England, determined to make a life of her own. Perhaps the title should have clued me in to the ending — but the moment when Megan realises that she has to return home to look after her family after all is beyond disappointing.
9. 'Dark Places' by Gillian Flynn
10. 'Breaking Dawn' by Stephenie Meyer
11. 'Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' by Mark Twain
This is probably the most disappointing book ending of all. Throughout The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we watch Huck overcome the racism of his society and learn to understand his companion Jim, the escaped slave, as a human. But right at the end, Huck meets up with his old friend Tom Sawyer — and the two of them lapse straight back into their old ways. Meanwhile, Jim is recaptured, and Huck and Tom treat it as a joke rather than expressing outrage at the racism of the situation. Jim is freed in the end, but it doesn't make up for the disappointment we felt that Huck never learned anything.