When La La Land hit Netflix recently, I asked a friend and fellow show tune lover whether she’d recommend it. Her response was swift and heated–she was seriously outraged that Mia and Sebastian didn’t end up together. “It’s a musical! It’s supposed to have a happy ending!” She was so scandalized that I kept this thought to myself: I’m pretty sure that outcome would make me like it more.
A traditional happy ending is a fairly common female expectation, one that starts early and is difficult to discard. Just try to picture Cinderella ending up with a podiatrist in Pensacola instead of the prince. Or resolving, after her divorce, to go back and get her Master’s in counseling. Jane not returning for Rochester? Hermione and Ron going their separate ways, destined to cross paths only at Hogwarts PTA meetings? Unthinkable. Yet those outcomes seem statistically likelier than the happier-ever-after so often employed. And this rubs some of us, the rational rather than romantic readers, the wrong way.
Here’s a little litmus test. Which writer do you prefer: Jane Austen or Edith Wharton? Jane devotees are the romantics–every Austen novel ends with a wedding (even a double wedding!), or at least the promise of one. Wharton novels tend to end in death, profound dissatisfaction, or at least a boatload of regret. Jane’s girls start life poor but eventually find a pot of gold; Edith’s are often born with advantages that they lose or squander. I am a Wharton girl, through and through. It’s counter-intuitive–you’d think the Brits with their stiff upper lip and their “keep calm and carry on” would be the pragmatists and the Americans the dreamers, but go with it. At any rate, I know I’m way more likely to be maimed in an Ethan Frome-style toboggan incident than to be handed the keys to Darcy’s Pemberly. I’m cool with that. I may never experience the hopeful euphoria of the fairy tale, but I never feel cheated when the prince doesn’t show, either.
Maybe it’s time to change the training program for young female readers, or at least offer them some options. This past Valentine’s Day, I presented my high school students with a dual book display: “Happy Endings” and “Not-So-Happy Endings”. The latter contained YA novels like Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park, Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places, E. L. Lockhearts’s We Were Liars, Mindy McGinniss’ The Female of the Species, Daniel Handler’s Why We Broke Up, and John Green’s Paper Towns. (I’m leaving out the obvious, Green’s The Fault in Our Stars–if you couldn’t see a death coming in that book from 10 miles away, I can’t help you.) Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star was a tough call–the young couple’s romance is dashed by circumstance, then tentatively restored with an improbable path-crossing in a years-later epilogue. (Edith rolls her eyes.)
These stories aren’t necessarily devoid of hope, but their pleasures don’t depend on plucky, star-crossed lovers Making It Work. They are imbued with loss, disappointment, and compromise, but you do imagine their characters, maybe now a little worse for the wear, getting on with things. They may resonate more with young women who already see the chips in life’s paint, and can work with that. As Ms. Wharton herself said in The Last Asset (1904), “…there’s only one way of being comfortable, and that is to stop running round after happiness. If you make up your mind not to be happy there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a fairly good time.”