Molly Giles wrote a terrific essay in “The Writer’s Chronicle” in which she described various types of story endings, from the Happily Ever After Ending, such as when Max in Where The Wild Things Are returns home from his rumpus to eat his dinner, “And it was still hot,” to the ending where the author sticks the knife in, which immediately brought Susanna Moore’s In The Cut to mind, where the villain does just that to our narrator. (Incidentally, I liked the novel but loathed that ending.)
One of Giles’ suggesting endings is one that resolves the narrator’s present dilemma and gives them a push toward the future. This allows the reader to envision a better tomorrow for the character, or at least a tomorrow that makes more sense for the character.
A. Manette Ansay’s Vinegar Hill has such an ending—it neatly culminates as well as continues the story. Ellen, the main character, her husband James, and their two children, Amy and Bert, move in with James’ parents, but the move becomes permanent after James is laid off. Combative, paranoid and intolerant of children, his parents cause Amy and Bert to become withdrawn and distrustful. James himself regresses into sullen, petulant behavior, and Ellen suffers alone, unable to speak out, challenge or change things. In the end, she, decides to save herself and her children by leaving James and his parents.
The ending is in direct contrast to the ominous beginning when we meet Ellen inside her in-laws’ dreary house. It’s not just bad, it’s downright disgusting: “as rigid and precise as a church, thick with the smell of old age, of pale gray skin and Ben-Gay and many dry roasts and silent suppers.” In the novel’s ending, Ellen stands outside the house, feels the night air to be cool and private against her skin, with the damp grass lapping at her ankles. She sees “the lawn with the sky stretching wide above her, the pinpoints of stars glowing billions of possibilities…” and she feels whole and strong.
Then, Ellen goes inside and asks her adolescent daughter, Amy, to take a walk with her. The very last lines of the novel succeed because they allow the reader to see for themselves a subtle change in character behavior: “Amy and Ellen do not speak. They do not look at each other. But they reach the flat coin of the lake holding hands.”
Ansay ends the novel with that image, a simple gesture between Ellen and Amy, a subtle metaphor for hope.
As Giles states in her essay, fiction is supposed to be better than real life. One of the reasons we write, she suggests, is that “we want to feel we are forgiven and that there is hope, and the ending of choice in today’s fiction is the ending that offers both.”