Bittersweet Stories

Love.StoryIn a nutshell: I hate them.  I really, really hate them.

When I was in middle school, Titanic came out.  A classmate came in one day and raved about it: “Oh my God, I’ve seen it like four times already, and it’s sooooooo good.”  Why, says I?  He dies.  A lot of people die.  It’s four hours long.  What’s the point?  She looked at me, shocked.  “It’s for the romance.”  But so many people suffer, I said.  “Yeah, that’s the point.”

Clearly, I didn’t get it.  I have seen Titanic and I still don’t get it (no offense, Leo, but you never did it for me), but it’s the heart-wringing and tear-shedding and nose-honking and mucous-dripping that I can’t stand.  I mean, why put yourself through all of that when it doesn’t even end happily?

Apparently, there’s something about the bittersweet that tugs those heartstrings, however unwanted.  People say it’s about the journey, or the growth, or even about the self-fulfilment reached at the end.  But me, I don’t like the ambiguous or unhappy endings.  I don’t like all the tears shed, which makes my nose runny and leaves me feeling like I’ve been wrung out.  I have enough drama in my life, thank you very much – I do not need the extra yo-yoing of emotions.  And I emphatically do not like not having a happily-ever-after, especially after all the suffering that came before.

Some stories temper the bitter with the promise of an afterlife together in eternity, or through reincarnation.   So cue heaps and heaps of Asian legends,  as well as the occasional story. (Butterfly Lovers?  Geez, talk about depressing.),  I can’t think of one that I’ve read, because although I’m sure I’ve read some good ones, I can’t recall them.  Maybe I subconsciously blocked them from memory.

Which means I’ve never watched Love Story or A Walk to Remember, I am definitely not re-reading A Knight in Shining Armor or The Silver Metal Lover, and it’s a toss-up whether I’ll even pick up The Time Traveller’s Wife or To Hell with Love.  (Although I’ve heard such good things about the latter that I might, just might, do that.  If I see it in the library.)

Bittersweet, in short, is not my thing.

Do you like bittersweet stories?  Why or why not?  Which are your favourites?

Do you like bittersweet stories?

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47 Responses to “Bittersweet Stories”

  1. Delia Bourne says:

    I agree completely! Bittersweet is fine for “literature” (I read Doctor Zhivago when I was 14), but in real life, I see enough bad things happening. When I read for pleasure, I want to know that deserving people struggle, improve and live happily. In fact, I have a problem with some settings because I doubt they CAN live happily ever after. Don’t give me a book set in France in the 1770s because I KNOW someone’s going to lose a head eventually. I think that’s why England and eaarly 1800s is so popular. Along that time, there’s a BIG war that “the good guys” will win, and after that, an era that’s fairly peaceful.

  2. Tee says:

    Titanic, Love Story, Phantom of the Opera, Bridges of Madison County, Beaches, books by authors who write similarly to Nicholas Sparks and Nicholas Evans and any film that resembles any of the above just don’t appeal to me. I’m totally with you on this, Jean, 100 percent.

  3. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by All About Romance, Romantic Endeavors. Romantic Endeavors said: Answered the poll! RT @AllAboutRomance: New poll today: Do you like bittersweet stories? AAR wants to know. http://bit.ly/cmhoCj [...]

  4. Scorpio M. says:

    I don’t mind bittersweet. I like my Disney/HEA romances but if the book is well written a little sad will not deter me.

  5. Leigh says:

    Jean, Delia, Tee,. . .

    I completely agree with all that you guys have said. You get enough bittersweet in real life.

  6. LeeAnn says:

    AMEN FOR SURE AND YOU ARE SO RIGHT!
    And people give you this blank look and say, “but it’s SO ROMANTIC”. Baloney!

  7. Terry says:

    I especially don’t like time travel because somebody has to stay in the time or be separated like A Knight in Shining Armor and some other books like that one

  8. RobinB says:

    I’m not a “Titanic” fan either, but not for the reasons mentioned by Jean, Delia, and Tee. After all these years, I’m still angry that “Titanic” stole all those Oscars from the REAL best picture of 1997, “L.A. Confidential”!!

    Bittersweet stories have their place in literature, and there are many that I’ve enjoyed. However, (and this has been discussed elsewhere on AAR) as we define romance literature today, the main characters get their HEA, often after a lot of struggle and heartache, but the stories end on an upbeat note. And with all that’s going on in the world, that’s not such a bad thing!

  9. Nathalie T says:

    I read one a couple of days ago. The book was more than 700 pages. After reading such a long story at least the author could have given her poor characters a happy ending. I feel the same way about Titanic.

  10. djcooper says:

    Give me HEA every time. Of course, I have friends who argue that “happy” is relative, but there is enough of death and loss in real life – I don’t want it creeping into whatever entertainment I choose, be it books or film. I read to escape, not to be confronted with brutal reality, thanks. (Never watched “Titanic”. Never will. Good grief, you know nearly everyone you will see on screen will die. I am still scarred, even today, from seeing the 1953 “Titanic” on TV as a child. I still remember that band playing “Nearer My God to Thee” on deck. Eck.)

    Give me happy endings every time please!!

  11. JML says:

    I’m a great deal older then you Jean so it’s inexcusable that I broke into giggles when the couple from Titanic were adrift in the ocean and he was trying to hold on. All I could think after hours in that seat in that crowded theater was “die already!”. I went into whoops of laughter while others were getting out their tissues.

    It was the same with Love Story. All that angst? No.

    I’m in total agreement. I read romance for the HEA and I make no exceptions when looking for something new to read.

  12. xina says:

    I love a happy ending, but I don’t mind the bittersweet ending. Probably not in a romance novel, but in another genre it all depends on the writing and the story itself. I don’t read Sparks, but did enjoy The Time Traveler’s Wife despite it’s less than happy ending. Also have enjoyed some Anita Shreve and Sharon Kay Penman…(Here Be Dragons, Falls The Shadow). I can get handle a bittersweet ending if I love the story.

  13. No, ever since I started reading Romance, I can’t abide an unhappy ending.

    Still, the HEA seems like such a constraint on the authors. How do put your characters and their relationship into realistic dramatic jeopardy and still get them to an HEA? Often, the dramatic jeopardy seems forced (the Big Misunderstanding) so that the happy ending is easy to achieve (they talk to each other.) Even more often the HEA seems unrealistic (he’s really the unknown heir to the Dukedom, his family accepts her even though she was a courtesan) or rushed with lots of holes simply left unaddressed.

    The middle ground between bittersweet and HEA is the HFN – an ending that few Romance novels use unless they’re historical M/M romances. But I think that the HFN gives the author more space for realistic drama and suspense, more opportunities to avoid the cliches to bring the story to a well-written ending.

  14. Margaret says:

    Not a fan of Titanic the movie, still can’t understand why such a real life tragedy was glorified. In moderation I am a fan of bittersweet…didn’t like the ending of A Knight In Shining Armour, did like Time Traveller’s Wife, love The Notebook, Love Story was okay. I’ll answer ‘yes’ to the poll, but I’m more of an ‘it depends’ type.

  15. tracega says:

    I love HEA but a great story such as Cold Mountain or Atonement leaves such an impression, that years after reading them, or watching, I can cry just thinking about the love that was never to be….not that I want to reread or even watch again, I’m not a glutton for punishment! :o

  16. Anna L H says:

    Yes!! I was so happy to discover someone else agrees with me about Titanic! It came out just before my Freshman year of college, and all of my suitemates/friends/the entire female population of campus was constantly raving about how wonderful it was. It made me want to puke. And when my suitemates convinced me to watch it with them for the first time, I couldn’t help it, I laughed. While they were crying wrenching tears when Jack dies, I was unable to contain my mirth. (Mind you, part of the reason was b/c there did seem to be room on that board for Jack to climb up next to Rose, but still.) It just seemed absurd – and I didn’t understand why these people were so happy to get worked up emotionally over this movie. I hate unhappy endings! I want the h&h to live happily ever after.

    Incidentally, I had a similar thing happen to me with my high school friends over the movie Legends of the Fall. I thought one of my friends was going to hyperventilate she was sobbing so hard. I believe they threatened to ostracize me from our group when I told them I didn’t like it. But, I’m sorry, Tristan was a jerk. I just can’t like these bittersweet stories. I can understand their appeal, but as you said – why put myself through that. I have to go to a humorous/observe-the-absurd place in order to get through them – it’s the same coping mechanism that I take at funerals – and I hate when I am tempted to laugh at the wrong times. It’s embarrassing.

  17. Anja says:

    My mother constantly recommends books and movies to me because they made her cry. “It was so good. I cried for an hour.” I don’t get it.

    I actually discovered romance books because of a book that made me sob (I am not a crier so this was a feat unto itself). I checked a book out from the library thinking it was a political thriller and found myself bawling buckets at the ending. I took it straight back to the library and asked the librarian where the “happy books” were located.

    To this day, I will not watch a romantic movie until I’ve read spoilers to determine if it ends well. This is also why I wait for several books in a series to come out before starting book one. I need to know who the future pairs are so I don’t root for the wrong person who ended up dying.

  18. Anja says:

    Forgot to say that I will still watch/read something that has a less than happy ending but I like to be prepared for it so I don’t get attached.

  19. maggie b. says:

    I voted no but it is really more of an “it depends.” One dependent factor is if the story is about the romance. If it is, then I want an HEA. Dependent factor number two is if the h/h don’t get their HEA because of stupidity on the part of one or the other of them doing something incredibly stupid. Henry in “The Time Traveller’s Wife” did not seem seriously interested in stopping his travels. He enjoyed the heck out of them. That bugged me — a lot. I am also a tad perverse — I was thrilled when Colonel Schrader and Lady Beauchamp in “Our Yanks” didn’t get their HEA. Didn’t like them, didn’t feel they deserved one. And I was please when Duval was no longer a factor in “Those in Peril” because he opened the door for the character I did want with Barbara.
    And naturally, if the story is not a romance I am satisfied if the writer meets the expectation of whatever genre he/she is writing in.

  20. bavarian says:

    I’m able to tolerate bittersweet in a movie. Two or three hours and then a well done “bad” ending (sometimes certainly the more believable ending) I can stand. But reading a book I connect much more deeply with the characters than watching a movie, even a very well made movie. So a bad ending does hurt much more in a book. That’s the reason I love romance. I can be sure: no hurting at the end!

  21. Lee says:

    You know what changed my enjoyment of bittersweet movies? September 11, 2001. I just can’t bring myself to pay to see sadness anymore. Of course, that limits what I see, but it’s worth it for my peace of mind. I’ve read a very few bittersweet stories since then too; Time-Traveler’s Wife comes to mind. But I change the ending in my head.

  22. Nikki says:

    I really, really wanted to love the beautiful film “Last of the Mohicans”, but…the homesteaders die. Most of the people at the fort die. Uncas dies. Alice commits suicide (Wes Studi’s blood smeared Magua tenderly beckoning Jodhi May away from the cliff – if that vignette doesn’t get your emotions going in six different directions I don’t know what would). Noble Duncan sacrifices himself for Cora – but Cora DOESN’T get an HEA with Hawkeye! Chingachook becomes the end of a rich tradition, history and culture.

    I’m depressed. Where’s that chocolate?

  23. xina says:

    I have read one Sparks novel…The Notebook, and the ending in the book is different from the movie. When everyone was sobbing in the audience, I was saying…”that didn’t happen!” I think Hollywood sometimes takes the sadness too far. Marley and Me….good lord it took forever for poor Marley to pass away. I was a little disgusted by that. The book, it happened, move on.

  24. Danielle C. says:

    If I open a book with the expectation that it is a romance or some form of romantic fiction, a bittersweet ending sours the experience for me.

    Otherwise, I do feel that tragedy can play an important, compassionate role in fiction, whether as a form of catharsis or a way to understand the suffering or grief of others. But again, the success of this depends on how it is handled. Too often tragedy in books and films seems to be invoked simply to manipulate emotion (Sparks) or for shock effect, rather than to illuminate a character or explore a topic.

  25. Janet W says:

    I’m with Maggie B: it depends. I cried forever over Cry No More (Linda Howard) and A Precious Jewel (Mary Balogh). Sure they are technically HEAs but there’s a lot of angsty sadness (like another one, To Have and To Hold by Patricia Gaffney) that will never be totally obliterated by the “happy ending”. But yeah, for the most part, give me happy!

  26. Maxine says:

    I agree! I can’t stand bittersweet stories!

    I was the only one of my friends who really didn’t like the ending to the third Pirates of the Caribbean (especially the very end scene at the end of the credits) – It was a resolution, but not a happy one. It was too bittersweet to really be considered a good ending, at least in my opinion :)

    And for those who mention The Time Traveler’s Wife, I haven’t read that one, but I can tell you that her second book (Her Fearful Symmetry) is also not really a HEA.

  27. Maxine says:

    Although, in regards to simply crying over a book- that I don’t mind, some books/plots/characters just pull my heartstrings, and I don’t consider those bittersweet, as long as it is a happy-teary ending :)
    Anne Gracie’s Gallant Waif kills me every time!

  28. melann says:

    It depends for me as well, but mostly I don’t care for the bittersweet stuff. It aggravates me to put people through the wringer and then leave them miserable or at least not suicidal at the end. Then again, maybe I just don’t have the sensibilities to properly appreciate it.

    I’ll admit that I nearly cried at the end of Titanic. I kept thinking that stupid necklace would pay off my student loans! That’s about the best I could do, though.

    @ Anna L H – One of my college roommates and I were ostracized while the rest of the dorm watched Beauty and the Beast on TV. She and I waited eagerly for the next opportunity to scrutinize the wardrobe, makeup, etc. We laughed through the whole show every week. Not a soul would watch with us. They thought we were missing the point, and of course we thought they were taking the whole thing far to seriously. I completely understand why they wanted to avoid us, though – it had to be a mood-killer.

  29. Susan/DC says:

    Depends. If I’m reading a Romance I want a happy ending. But if I’m reading literary fiction or watching a movie, I’m more open to bittersweet. For example I loved the film “The Constant Gardener”, based on a John LeCarre novel. Its ending is most definitely not happy, but what I thought was wonderful (besides Ralph Fiennes) was that by the end his character discovers that he was loved and that, after always thinking of himself as a weaking, he is in fact a hero.

    I also loved the novel “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak, but when a novel takes place in WWII Germany and is narrated by Death, you know to expect that there will be bittersweet aspects to it. And that is the key:
    that I am forewarned. I do NOT want to see or read something expecting a light, frothy romantic comedy only to have everyone die of the plague. I most definitely don’t want detailed spoilers, I just want to know if it has a happy ending or not.

    P.S. As for Titantic, I had a conversation about this very topic earlier today. The parts of the movie I loved dealt with the real people, e.g. Mrs. Gimbel getting out of the lifeboat to join her husband. I hated that Rose threw the necklace into the ocean instead of doing something worthwhile with the money it could have brought. That gesture was the opposite of romantic to me.

    • msaggie says:

      Susan/DC: …I hated that Rose threw the necklace into the ocean instead of doing something worthwhile with the money it could have brought.That gesture was the opposite of romantic to me.

      Susan, I so agree with you. When I saw Rose throw that necklace into the ocean, I thought – geez – those millions could have been donated for AIDS research or cancer research! What a b—–y waste.

      Sometimes a less-than-happy ending works better than a HEA, and I think the bittersweet stories stay with us longer and make a greater impact – e.g. Gone with the Wind, Romeo and Juliet. However, usually I prefer the happy-endings to the bittersweet ones. Bittersweet tales can be more cathartic.

    • RobinB says:

      Susan/DC: P.S. As for Titantic, I had a conversation about this very topic earlier today. The parts of the movie I loved dealt with the real people, e.g. Mrs. Gimbel getting out of the lifeboat to join her husband. I hated that Rose threw the necklace into the ocean instead of doing something worthwhile with the money it could have brought. That gesture was the opposite of romantic to me.

      Susan, I’m actually very interested in the “real” history of the Titanic. Years ago, when A&E was still a “classy” cable channel (recall that A&E aired the Colin Firth version of “Pride and Prejudice”!) it aired a documentary about the Titanic narrated by David McCallum, who incidentally appeared as Harold Bride in the movie “A Night to Remember”. Bride was one of Titanic’s radio operators, and he survived the disaster. Anyway, the documentary was so much more meaningful to me than the James Cameron epic was; there was so much real drama to be told that the Jack/Rose story seemed superfluous to me.

      BTW, not to be nit-picky, but the woman who got out of the lifeboat in order to stay with her husband was Ida Straus; her husband and his family were among the founders of Macy’s!

  30. Lynn says:

    I am with Lee. 9/11 completely changed what I read and what movies I’ll watch. I used to read Tom Clancy books, until one of them happened. I just can’t pay to feel sad….there’s enough of that everywhere.

  31. Xina says:

    All this talk of the Titanic. My great aunt was a passenger on the ship and she survived. She was a first class passenger and was 19 yrs. old. I didn’t know her, but I do know it was a horrific experience for her. A movie cannot really show the real experience. I really enjoyed the movie. Not so much for the romance, but for the showing of the ship and the experience of the passengers.

  32. CK says:

    I’m in complete agreement with Bavarian. I would never even consider picking up a romance book with no hea, but some of my favorite movies fit the “bittersweet” definition perfectly. Cold mountain, Moulin Rouge, Titanic (what is with all the hate people?), Legends of the Fall, Braveheart–all make me cry buckets, but I absolutely love them. For some reason I almost seem to relish crying when watching a movie even though a similar non-hea in a book would probably make me throw it across the room in disgust. Even though I really believe in the power of movies and I’d say that my emotional investments in my favorite books and movies are probably equal, I think I probably can tolerate the bittersweet in film because the visual and auditory format of the medium make me less inclined to mentally project myself into the character’s lives.

    And as an aside I would just like to say that I personally found LA Confidential to be pretentious and boring. No idea how Kim Basinger won an Oscar for her lifeless performance. But to each his’her own.

  33. Judith says:

    Bittersweet violates the conventions of the romance genre, so to me, anything that has a bitterweet ending is simply not a romance. It is a book or movie with romantic elements, and may even be very good, but to me, it’s just not a romance. I love some of the old tearjerker movies, for instance, like Waterloo Bridge, or All This and Heaven Too, but I don’t think of them as romances.
    The one that was SO popular, and received such critical acclaim, and that I threw across the room at the end, was Cold Mountain. Excellent story, interesting characters, beautifully written, and I loved it until the last few pages, when for no reason that I understand, the author turned the Ulysses legend he had been channeling 180 degrees and ended badly. That was just wrong.

  34. Luci says:

    I must say my vot eon the poll went to ‘no’. Bittersweet stories might be the best written ones but i am sorry I NEED a HEA. I need second chances to be possible, real love to be within everyone’s reach, even if characters have suffered through a heck of a lot and a lot there must be light at the end of the tunnel, otherwise what is the whole point, if you don’t get to hope. HEA in books make me believe they are possible in real life too.

    Having said that, I watched Titanic when i was 18 and loved it, except i was disappointed that Jack died :( . A Walk to Remember – I watched it thinking it was a romantic comedy, and had no idea it was based on NS’s book. I was shocked and i mean really shocked when the main female character died from cancer. I was expecting her to recover – after all it was a romantic film – wrong!

    I read the Time Traveler’s Wife too and it was a great great book. But probably, if i picked it up to read it today I wouldn’t. I read to escape, i read for comfort and relaxation nowadays.

    I get clients coming to my used book shop and going “here, read this book. It’s fantastic! I cried buckets.” and I go “erm, thank you I am sure its great, but no thank you. don’t want to read a story and feel down”.

    I don’t mind an angsty book but the HEA is a must for me.

  35. xina says:

    I might be wrong, but I think I remember reading somewhere that Paullina Simons wrote The Bronze Horseman as a single book. She didn’t plan on giving Tatia and Alexander a happy ending, but her husband encouraged her to write a sequel because he liked Alexander. The ending to that book was so sad. Yes, I was crying buckets and e-mailed the author the next day to see if there was a sequel in the works. Her response may have been where I found out that info about a HEA.

  36. Susan/DC says:

    Thanks to RobinB for the correction. It’s been years since I saw the movie, but that’s no excuse for not only mis-identifying her but turning her into the wife of a chief competitor!

    Another moment in Titanic that was quite poignant was when Victor Garber, as one of the men who designed the ship (IIRC, which I’ve already shown I may not), stopped the clock to mark the ship’s passing, much as one would stop a clock when a person died. I’m not a hater of the film, as I thought it had many lovely small moments like that, I just didn’t adore it the way some did. Perhaps my sense of the whole was colored by the waste of the ending — “Grey’s Anatomy” did it better when Izzy used Denny’s money to set up the clinic in his memory.

  37. KristieJ says:

    I hates them with a passion! It took me days to get over Sommersby. And don’t even get me started on Message in a Bottle. Cold Mountain, why?????
    Real life is sad enough. I don’t need it in my book/movie life too.

  38. I voted yes, and I will add qualifications. I absolutely require a HEA in my romances, no matter how angsty (and I do prefer angsty) but in non genre (primarily historical, as that’s mostly what I read in and out of genre) I can take some bittersweet; the bitter can make the sweet all the sweeter.

    In Phillipa Gregory’s A Respectable Trade, lovers Sarah and Mehuru do not get a HEA, but their son will see something truly world changing in his lifetime. For me, it works.

    I loved Titanic, but will not be rewatching the movie, unless it’s certain scenes with sound off. Mr DiCaprio doesn’t do it for me. I like the spectacle of the flim. One shot of the woman’s body floating in a flooded ballroom is both macabre and beautiful at once. The short scenes of the steerage passengers touch me – the Irish mother tucking her children into bed, the elderly couple lying down and embracing, etc. Poignant human moments that make the emotion real. Throwing the necklace in the ocean, though? Dumb.

  39. Dishonor says:

    I am a sucker for the bittersweet and the tragic. I sob, I weep, I sniffle, but in the end, I’m left with something I love.

    One of the best examples are the tragic things where the true lovers and whatever never quite make it to happiness. For example, I LOVE the Butterfly Lovers story Jean mentioned in her post, and I adore The Lady of the Camellias as well. So sad. So utterly heart-wrenching. So wonderful.

    When done well, I love ambiguity in endings too, because it leaves me thinking and mouth-dropped in awe at the possibilities.

    Maybe I’m not cut out to be a true romance reader.

  40. Lynn M says:

    I tend to like happy endings better and get mad when the ending is bittersweet, but I admit that bittersweet endings make far more of an impact on me. I remember movies/stories with bs endings – Cold Mountain, Titanic, A Walk To Remember (actually any and all Nicholas Sparks films), Green Card, Without Borders, Atonement, etc. – for much longer and much more deeply than the HEA ones. Granted, I can rarely ever rewatch these films because I can’t stand the sad endings. But they do affect me much more the first time around.

    I wanted to ask NIkki (from way upthread) – why do you think that Cora didn’t get an HEA with Hawkeye at the end of “Last of the Mohicans”? I didn’t get that. It seemed to me that despite all of the sadness that had just occurred, Cora and Hawkeye do make a life together. What did I miss?

  41. Jan L. says:

    you guys are my type of people! i always feel like the odd man out when friends are sobbing and i’m not. The titanic, shows on TLC, lifetime movies, etc. Another book to add is (maybe not a romance?) Memories of a Geisha. My friends and family recommended it; saying it was super romantic and how they cried. I remember as I finished the book thinking “what is this!?!” She was living as his mistress in another continent raising his son, seeing him for part of the year. This is not the happy ending I was looking for.

  42. It depends on expectations, for me. If it’s classified as a romance, then no, I don’t like them. But if it’s not, then anything goes.
    I cried my eyes out the first time I went to see Zeffirelli’s version of “Romeo and Juliet.” But if they’d woken up and walked off together into the sunset? There wouldn’t have been much point to the story.
    Anna Karenina? Couldn’t end any other way. It would have been cheating because the story was about Anna defying society, moving out of her comfort zone, and she couldn’t win.
    On the other hand, Trollope persuaded Dickens to change the ending of “Great Expectations” from an unhappy one to a happy one, and it works better. The unhappy ending was hollow, there wasn’t much point, but the happy ending rounded off the story properly.
    So those books would have been so much worse if they’d had happy endings. And I would have been poorer for not having experienced them.

  43. Lucinda says:

    I like happy endings, and I’m not ashamed to say it. I’m glad you mentioned The Way We Were. That was a great movie, but the ending ruined it. Now, when I see it on T.V., I watch up until they break up and then switch channels.

  44. Great post and straight to the point. I don’t know if this is actually the best place to ask but do you guys have any ideea where to employ some professional writers? Thanks in advance :)

  45. Rhett says:

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