Tying it up in a Bow

tiedupbowAs romance readers we like happy endings. I still remember the book that pushed me firmly away from historical fiction into the romance camp. The heroine was a New England ship captain’s wife. It started out with a romantic meeting and courtship, and ended with plummeting fortunes and marital discord. I closed the book and tried to think why I had wanted to read it in the first place, or why anyone would want to read it. If I’m reading for pleasure, I want it to end happily. But I have to wonder whether ending happily means it also has to end neatly.

Because we also complain about hackneyed epilogues. You know what I mean. It’s a year later, and the heroine has just given birth to the adorable heir (because I swear it is usually a boy). Our hero and heroine look at each other with gooey eyes and perfect happiness. There’s no hint that the baby in question might get sick, or their financial fortunes will undergo an abrupt reversal, or even that the beloved family dog will pee on the priceless Aubusson carpet. In other words, there’s no inkling that the hero and heroine are about to experience life as we know it. If there’s any hint of discord in an epilogue, it tends to be in the form of angst for the couple’s friend/relative/old school chum who will be featured in the next sequel. 

What got me thinking about this in the first place? I read two with slipshod endings, both of which read as if the author got sick of writing and just ended the book with little thought or planning. One I have reviewed (and panned) already – Dusk with a Dangerous Duke. In this gem, the story ends with the hero and heroine professing their love as a house burns down around them (after bickering the book away), after which someone (no one ever says who) breaks down the door and presumably puts the fire out. The happy couple walks pout the door to live happily ever after (one assumes) without helping put the fire out, thanking the rescuer, or appearing in a happy epilogue with a dimpled baby in tow.

The second book is one I’m about to review (better than the first, but not by much), which leaves an ending with plot holes big enough to drive a semi through. My personal favorite was the way the hero’s brother had been grazed by a bullet and thought he was Russian. He stills thinks he’s Russian at the end of the book. Or was it the heroine’s brother, who was apparently kidnapped by Indians and renowned for his fiery red hair? Everyone knew about him (except the heroine apparently - she’d been trying to find him for five years). I’m pretty sure these loose ends will be addressed in the next book – which I will definitely not be sticking around to read.

Is there a happy medium somewhere? A non-gooey epilogue? A sunny – bot not completely unrealistic - ending? One where loose ends are tied up satisfactorily but not too neatly? One I can think of recently the struck all the right notes was Cecelia Grant’s A Gentleman Undone. The hero and heroine are happy, but their life is a modest one. Their immediate, pressing issues are resolved, but they aren’t exactly living in fabulous wealth  - or bouncing a baby on both arms.

What kind of ending strikes the right note for you? Do you like the ooey-gooey love and babies? Do you need everything tied up in a bow?

– Blythe Barnhill

21 thoughts on “Tying it up in a Bow

  1. I loved how in Dreaming of You, the epilogue featured a self-conscious Sarah who is worried about what Derek will think of her body post-baby. Of course, it ends up gooey and there is the requisite baby but I liked the acknowledgement that having a baby changes things and people and that it was something they had to work through.

  2. I much prefer a not too short not too long ending. Doesn’t have to have babies but I do like seeing how things are going a year or two down the road.

    I loved how Kate Noble’s latest, Let It Be Me, had a sort of ending at the beginning and then went to the start of the story, years earlier. That was unusual and really well done.

  3. Carla Kelly’s Marriage of Mercy had the hero and heroine living a life far removed from her original station in the world. At the end of her The Lady’s Companion we know that they will always have to deal with her father and he will always be a problem. Her endings tend to be less “perfect” than most but also give us hope for the couple in adversity because it shows how truly in love they are.

  4. I like an ending, or an epilogue, that offers reasonable proof–proof being subjective, of course–that the couple will stay together. That they’ve got what it takes: true love and respect.

    I did feel, at the end of A Gentleman Undone, that both parties had gone through enough, and shown me enough about themselves, that they would be happy together.

    One of my favorite epilogues is the one for The Raven Prince. It reassured me that class differences, physical appearances, and such did not get in the way of the couple’s happiness.

    Big fail for me, ending-wise: Leopard Prince. The ending left me doubting that Harry could ever truly adapt to, or be happy living, Georgina’s lifestyle.

  5. I’m definitely looking for a satisfying HEA, but the baby thing, while an unarguable symbol of love, is so overdone it’s almost meaningless. And in some books, where the hero/heroine act so recklessly throughout the book or have a volatile relationship, I can’t help but wonder how their kid will turn out. I also think in some books, the conflict between the hero/heroine, things said and done are so extreme sometimes in a bid to hold the readers’ attention that gooey words at the end don’t make up for that, as though the author reaches 90k and expects an “I’m sorry” to make everything better. A good ending is hard to do well, for sure, and false notes and too easy or too contrived devices are common. I’ll overlook a less than stellar ending if the journey getting there is worth it, though

  6. One HEA that has stuck with me for years was Victoria Dahl’s One Week as Lovers. At the risk of spoiling too much, the Hero has no money and the heroine isn’t a magical heiress who will solve all of his problems. He actually has to think outside of the socially acceptable parameters of his title to find a way for them to be together. AND… They aren’t married with kids at the end! The reader leaves the book knowing they will be together and they will be happy, but we also understand that they are going to have to work for that happiness. It isn’t a nice neat ending, but it’s more realistic and I liked that over so many of the saccharine sweet epilogues we normally get in a historical.

  7. I can usually live with all of the loose ends not being tied up as long as it is not central to the plot of the h/h reaching some kind of HEA. Julie James had a “happily for now” for the h/h in “Somebody Like You,” and James left me satisfied that the h/h were eventually going to get their HEA. Kate Noble in “Follow Me,” left me wondering about the HEA at the end of the book. It abruptly ends with the hero giving his passionate speech to the heroine, who he loved, to a closed door with the heroine on the other side of the door with no response from the heroine. If fairness, you know the heroine loves him but I wanted some response from the heroine or a brief epilogue.

    I’m not a fan of the gooey baby epilogue and find most a nauseating add-on. My favorite epilogues usually add to the story. Sherry Thomas wrote the most romantic epilogue I have ever read, without a miracle baby, in “Almost A Husband.” It sealed the HEA in that angst-filled book where I was never quite sure about the HEA. Eloisa James’ “This Duchess of Mine,” had a hero with a serious medical condition. The epilogue takes us a few decades beyond the ending of the book ensuring the reader that the hero lived in spite of the medical condition and light-heartedly touches upon the couples reflections of their adult children and their continuing HEA.

    • To add a correction: The Julie James book is titled, “Something About You.”

  8. PamelaM is quite right about the epilogue in “Not Quite a Husband”. It’s perfect: the heroine has remained rather self-contained, the hero hasn’t tried to change her, and there are no babies in sight.

  9. I read “Liberating Lacey” by Anne Calhoun and it was one of the best endings I have read in a long while. No marriage, but a HEA for now with a definite promise to working toward marriage and babies. There were some serious class conflicts between the hero/heroine that weren’t going away anytime soon. She was very blue-blooded wealthy, and he was a cop. Not a Delta Force, super hero kind of cop, but the kind that writes speeding tickets and walks the beat. He felt and continued to feel at a disadvantage around her…but they came to a realistic understanding by, you know, being adults and communicating. They had to learn how to talk to each other and the magnificent sex wasn’t going to take the place of communication. So at the end of the book, I was hopeful for their eventual success…even if I didn’t see it on the page. And that was absolutly fine! I really wish more authors would take advantage of a HEA that doesn’t always involve marriage, particularly in historicals. A Duke and a shop owner can fall in love. They can get a HEA. Heck, they can have twelve kids. But stop, STOP asking me to believe they could get married and have everyone be fine with that after a few etiquette lessons for the shopkeeper. I am talking to you, Loretta Chase, and Tessa Dare. Have some respect for the period and your readers, already. Chase and Dare are very fine writers, but I am tired of having to constantly suspend disbelief.

    • I wish I could edit my post below to add Liberating Lacey. That was a very good ending, and I appreciated that their differences weren’t glossed over, but that they realized they wanted to be together despite those. LL is also one of the few books in which not only is the heroine more powerful/wealthy than the hero, but this difference is because of her abilities, talent and hard work – and not just because she inherited the money.

  10. I agree about Not Quite a Husband. I liked that it showed that there was no miracle baby but the h/h were happy, content, successful in their respective fields, and had a wonderful life together. I also like the HFN trend that seems to be becoming more common in contemporaries and is often used in YA ad NA romances.

    “Abrupt ending” is the most frequent reason for which I knock down the final grades of the books I read. I guess it’s very difficult to find the right balance, but I’d rather the ending drag a bit then just have a book end too suddenly.

    A bigger problem for me than the overly neat epilogue/ending is when previous couples show up with their annoyingly perfect lives and annoyingly perfect offspring in future books (I am looking at you, SEP). Some of the authors who have managed to avoid doing this are Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville and to a lesser extent, Pamela Clare (whose epilogues are very much of the babies and sunshine variety). If I’m not mistaken, only one couple has children at the end of Neville’s Burgundy Club series, and various siblings remain single! How often do we see that happen in romance, at least recently?

    • I agree that a little sunshine and rainbows can be fun (Mary Balogh’s Slightly Dangerous is at the top of my all time favorite list, and it ends with a baby christening). But yes, trot out every couple and show how perfect they are, and I start to get annoyed. Or to think about what it’ll be like when they are dealing with moody teenagers and unexpected bills.

  11. While I’m not usually a fan of ooey-gooey epilogues with the requisite babies and googlie-eyed glances (such as the epilogue to Eloisa James’s WHEN BEAUTY TAMED THE BEAST), I have to say that in THE DUCHESS WAR Courtney Milan displayed what, to me, has been the best example of an epilogue that not only works but adds layers and depths to the HEA that precedes it.

    In THE DUCHESS WAR, the epilogue is necessary to the resolution of the hero’s two biggest internal conflicts, and shows the continued development of the hero’s character—as well as that of an important secondary character. It’s one of those epilogues that does show, as @Lori said in her comment, proof that the couple has overcome those obstacles to their HEA that occurred in the book and have grown and matured in the two years’ (??) time that has passed between the final chapter and the epilogue.

  12. Well, IMO, the baby epilogue–and a male is necessary in historicals–ties romance fiction very clearly to the traditional, and again IMO, nothing is more traditional than romance fiction. As the old song says “a girl for you, a boy for me,” makes you SEE “how happy we will be.”

  13. @Yulie : Yes! And the heroine loved her work and was good at it. Same thing for the hero, and neither character was diminished because of the other’s competence.They both respected the other’s abilities. Two adults falling in love….it actually CAN work!

  14. A happy ending is pretty standard romance fare, and I understand that. I like to follow Thomas Hardy’s pattern. While generally happy endings can be found to most of his works, there’s usually quite a struggle to get there. Additionally, there usually aren’t rainbows and unicorns, because life really isn’t that way. Hardy understood that better than most Victorian writers, I think.

  15. I like happy endings. I like all the mysteries in the book solved, and I deeply dislike when I have to buy another book in the series to find out. I’m not very fond of series and the truth is that I won’t probably buy the next book, so the only one that I read ended in a very unsatisfactory way for me.
    I don’t need epilogues that add nothing to the story: a baby, a family reunion and all that… sounds a little bit cheesy for me. But I understand it’s a way of expressing -again- that they are happy, yes, one year later this is what happened, this is happiness.
    Personally, I prefer Sandra Brown’s endings. She is sharp, not one word beyond what’s required. I still remember the end of ‘Lethal’, I liked it but many people had doubts if it was a HEA or not. And it was very risky of her to end a great book that way.

  16. Many of You mentioned the male offspring of titled heroes. I’m sure I’ve recently read an epilogue with a baby girl and the H was quite content. He loved his wife and his new daughter nontheless.
    Unfortunately I’ve forgotten the title of the book though I found the epilogue rather unusual.

  17. I did something with the epilogue of FRENCH LEAVE (3rd book of the Weaver series of Regency romances) that I haven’t seen before. (I’m not claiming to be unique, but if there’s another book that does this, I haven’t come across it.) I ended FL with the 25th wedding anniversary of Ethan and Lady Helen Brundy, titular characters from THE WEAVER TAKES A WIFE. The epilogue shows one of their grown sons, who spots the daughter of Lord Waverly (villain of TWTAW and hero of FL) across a crowded room and vows on the spot to marry her. It’s the same way TWTAW begins, and Ethan Brundy and Lord Waverly’s mutual horror suggests that the story is beginning all over again–and that they’re stuck with each other as in-laws for life. ;-)

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