Last year, I discussed what makes a book scary, so I thought I would approach the holiday from a different angle this year: the angle of surprise.
Here are some of the most delightful surprise endings I’ve come across in literature:
1) To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before … Jenny Han
When my dad asked me what I was reading, I fibbed, “Oh, just some Tolstoy.” Now I’m coming clean. I was totally engrossed by this little chick lit number. Han has crafted an interesting type of surprise ending. The facts unfold right under your nose. No slight of hand or unreliable narrators. Still, she managed to keep me guessing about the final outcome right up to the last page.
I would argue that the biggest surprise is how To All the Boys sets the chick lit prototype on its head. Instead of rascals turning into sweethearts, sweethearts turn into rascals.
2) Life of Pi … Yann Martel
Ah, the Life of Pi. Here we have, not just a surprise ending, but an entire surprise plot. From zoo animals piling onto lifeboats to islands full of carnivorous vines, Martel has created a world in which anything is possible.
But the biggest surprise of all comes at the end of the book, when Martel’s world collides with reality, and all of its fantastic elements are explained in the grim terms of reality.
3) A Gathering of Old Men … EJ Gaines
Think of how many secrets your life holds. Now multiply that by seventeen.
In A Gathering of Old Men, Gaines juggles the deepest, darkest secrets of no less than seventeen men–men who have been silenced by racial oppression for decades and are finally ready to tell their stories. They are brought together by a murder, and in some ways, A Gathering follows your typical “whodunnit” plot–but on his way to unveiling the murderer’s identity, Gaines reveals the whole identities of an entire community of people.
4) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6) … JK Rowling
JK Rowling was famous for staging villain reveals at the end of each Harry Potter book. Who can forget Professor Quirrell unwinding his turban to reveal Voldemort’s face on the back of his head? Or Mad Eye Moody’s eye popping out of Barty Crouch Junior’s eye socket when he ran out of polyjuice potion?
Still, no reveal was quite so dramatic as the reveal in Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince. Unlike the other villains, who were mostly limited to one book, Rowling had spent no less than six books building up this villain’s character, so not only did his grand reveal provoke surprise, it provoked a sense of uncertainty as well.
5) And Then There Were None … Agatha Christie
So far, I’ve tried to avoid cramming this list with suspense/mystery books (because really, surprise endings aren’t even a surprise in those books anymore; they’re an industry standard). But I couldn’t resist throwing in Agatha Christie’s masterful And Then There Were None.
Eight people meet on a private island in India. In short order, a disembodied voice accuses them all of murder, and a mystery assailant begins picking them off, one by one. Naturally, they band together to sniff out the assailant and put a stop to the killings. But–here’s the shocker–by the end of the book, all of them are dead. What? How? Read it and find out.
6) Every Last Word … Tamara Ireland Stone
Every Last Word starts out as a cutesy, borderline-too-optimistic YA story about a young girl with obsessive compulsive disorder who finds relief by joining an underground poetry club.
About 3/4 of the way through the book, I wasn’t very impressed. And then, WHAM! BIG SURPRISE! I won’t spoil it, but I will say that my opinion of this book skyrocketed after that point.
7) “The Yellow Wallpaper” … Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Part feminist manifesto and part Gothic horror, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a stunning piece of work to me now, so I can only imagine the impact it had when it was published in 1892! Gilman’s writing style pulls you, gently but surely, into her story, and before you know it, you’re spiraling into a full psychotic episode. But the big shock comes in the last 100 words, when the narrator is suddenly transformed from the hunter into the hunted.
Do you have a favorite surprise ending in literature? (Gone Girl doesn’t count! That was blatant misdirection!)
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