The Shadows, and our Love of Happy Endings

By Grace on Apr 10th, 2015

The Shadows by JR Ward
When I finished reading The Shadows, I took a minute to get my thoughts together--jotted down a few notes, made a general outline--and then did something I NEVER do before reviewing a book: I hopped over to Goodreads to see how the community at large was reacting. Because, as some of you may already know, The Shadows breaks what many readers believe to be the primary rule of romance, the central covenant agreed upon between author and audience. Shadows, for two of its characters, at least, doesn’t offer the coveted “Happy Ending.” Not a fakeout, there’s no way this is going to work out, JUST KIDDING happy ending, or a temporary, to be continued in another novel happy ending. Just an actual, final, nope, this is totally f*cked forever kind of ending. And guys, people are furious. So furious, in fact, that J.R. Ward put up her own defense of the novel on the day it was released. (SPOILERS).

It’s clear to me that her readers, despite twelve previous novels that they’ve clearly loved, and despite this novel having plenty of substance and a second, actual happy ending for two other characters, feel utterly betrayed. Many said that they were incapable of enjoying the book at all, fantastic sex and lovable characters bedamned. All of this got me thinking. What, if anything, are we owed by these books, and by extension, their authors? Is it fair to expect an entire genre to conform to a single standard--or are we, the audience, by choosing romance novels specifically, more or less paying for the conclusion that we expect to reach?  So while I personally can recommend Shadows for many reasons (excellent writing, thorough characterizations, wonderful and intense emotions, and an ensemble cast that you genuinely come to love), I’d like to take a moment and talk about our HEO, or “Happy Ending Obsession”--what it means, whether it’s fair, and whether there is a place in the wide world of romance for books whose heroes and heroines maybe don’t get everything they wanted.     What Constitutes a Happy Ending, Anyway? For many of us, a HAE is incredibly straightforward. Hero + Heroine 4EVA, dudettes! Carve that shiz in an old tree with a heart around it because it is FLAWLESS. We absolutely do not care how absurd the plot twist has to be to arrange it, so long as it happens. (I saw a lot of people saying things along the lines of, “she didn’t even come back to life!” Come on, guys. This is romance, not a Marvel comic. We’re better than that.) Unfortunately, this leads to a lot of “happy endings” that don’t seem all that happy if you think about them for more than five minutes. Any story relies heavily on the tension between our heroes, their goals, and the obstacles standing in their way. For the story to work, the obstacles have to seem insurmountable: thus the absolute saturation of stories wherein the male lead just sucks for the first two-thirds of the novel. Can she change his ways? Is he secretly a good guy after all? Of course he is! And voila, cue cinematic makeouts, roll credits. ...But is that ending really “happy”? If our male lead was an unreliable prick, or our female lead was a distrusting crazy person, or they were torn apart by an earthshaking tragedy, or their families absolutely hated each other to the point where they were both disowned for being together, what are the odds that they have a healthy future ahead of them? We’ve all read at least one novel like this--be honest. Once the quick burst of satisfaction (“love really DOES triumph over everything! Pass me a tissue!”) fades, haven’t you ever wound up feeling a little off about a romance that you’ve read? What if winding up together actually wasn’t what was best? Does it matter? I think it does. Because-- Why Do We Keep Choosing Romance? “Romance,” despite being an incredibly broad, sort of catch-all term, to me denotes a certain escapism. Going through a lonely streak? Read about a woman who just stumbles into love. Husband being a dick? Edmund, all smoldering eyes and old-world gentility, is just the ticket. Real life, for a lot of us, can be a heavy burden to bear. Relationships fail, jobs are unsatisfying, and still, obligations must be met. These romances--wherein women are allowed to simply melt, and have a man scrape them up off the floor--portray a luxury we simply don’t have. I couldn’t throw my life to the wind in pursuit of a mad love affair: who would feed my dog? Who would take your kids to school, make sure the bills get paid? On the surface, what romance novels offer is a welcome relief. “Come on, hun,” our kindle whispers. “Draw yourself a bath and take a load off. Edmund is going to be so happy to see you, and whaddya know, he’s not wearing any pants.” So we do. We kick back, enjoy Edmund’s boner, and give ourselves a break, knowing that in this world at least, everything is going to Be Just Fine. But treating romances as simple escapism ignores the very thing that makes them so rewarding. If happy endings were all we wanted, we could be watching sitcoms. If we just wanted a treatise on the various ways to employ a rigid schlong, we’d be reading straight erotica. So what is it that keeps drawing us back? What really defines romance novels isn’t the conclusion, or the sexy times; it’s the actual relationship between the two leads. Romance Novels are really about the challenges, setbacks and heartbreaks of being in love with another human being. Serious romantic relationships are often the first time in our lives when we have to take somebody else into account--the first time that opportunity comes with an asterisk. I remember the first time I realized, with some trepidation, that my decisions weren’t just mine to make anymore--that you could offer me a dream job in Paris, and I’d have to check with someone else first. It was a little scary, but in a way, it’s comforting too. These relationships are a challenging, rewarding part of growing up, and learning to keep one working is one of the most difficult things you will do in a lifetime. Whether you’re falling in love for the very first time, or trying to maintain a marriage of ten years, our romantic relationships help to define not only who we are, but where we’re going. Like it or not, if you’ve managed to find a partner to spend your life with, they’re going to have a say in the direction that life takes. Romance novels, focused as they are on the internal--rather than the external--struggles of two people, offer us a means of preparing for, and working through, the thousand tiny triumphs and heartbreaks of trying to build a life with someone, albeit in a gloriously dramatic (and delightfully sexual) fashion. So Why Our Happy Ending Obsession? Escapism, or practice, or both--romance obviously strikes a chord with many of us, not just for its often improbable conclusions. I was honestly taken aback by the number of people on Goodreads who admitted that the ending of Shadows completely ruined their ability to enjoy the book--despite, as I’ve said, the fact that Shadows is an objectively well-done novel. The very idea that Ward would betray us with a tragic conclusion seems completely unthinkable to a lot of readers, and honestly, I don’t know if that’s a good thing. If romances offer a means of experiencing the struggles of romantic love from a safe distance, they should offer the full range of romantic love, including the very real possibility that it won’t end happily. For a lot of us, love and loss will eventually come together, and it will hurt like nothing else can. Experiencing that, from the safety of an armchair, set in a world that isn’t yours, is invaluable--and having novels out there that process these losses and heartbreak, and then allow their characters to embrace that loss and move on, seems to me an important contribution to what all literature can offer us; the chance to learn about yourself through the lens of someone else’s experience. Tragedy is a very real part of life; should we really exclude it so forcibly from our pages? All of this being said, I’m certainly not advocating that novelists fall all over themselves to give us maudlin, weepy romantic tragedies. Keep that shit in check. What I am saying is that, if the story calls for it--and some of them certainly do--an ending that strays from our straight-and-narrow concept of “happy” shouldn’t be verboten. So long as we maintain the important bits (read: the sexy bits), I see no reason why, in such an all-encompassing genre, we can’t make a little more room.