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The Golden Bowl – Henry James

This is the first time I’ve reviewed two books by the same author back-to-back. I had high hopes for The Golden Bowl, as it came very highly recommended by a friend. These hopes were tempered somewhat by reading The Turn of The Screw last week, but not completely lost. After all, Graham Greene once said that The Golden Bowl was one of James’s “three poetic masterpieces”, so it couldn’t be that bad, right? Well, I only found out later that my friend was a fan of Henry James in general but had never actually read The Golden Bowl in particular, and thus began my nightmare…

The Golden Bowl - Henry James - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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This edition of The Golden Bowl came with an author’s preface written by James himself. By the end of the first page, I could tell that James liked to use 20 words (and as many commas) to say something that could be said in five. Red flag number one! Reading the preface was such torture that I ended up skipping half of it altogether, and jumped straight into the story (which I never do!). I’d hoped the story would be an improvement but (spoiler alert) NOPE! I literally came to dread even picking up The Golden Bowl before I’d reached the end of the first chapter.

If I’m being honest, plot-wise, it wasn’t that bad. It kicks off with an impoverished Italian prince (Amerigo) all set to marry Maggie Verver (the daughter of a wealthy American). On the eve of the wedding, his former lover (Charlotte) shows up out of the blue. He never married Charlotte because they were both too poor, but she was in effect “the one who got away”. He goes ahead and marries Maggie, but Charlotte just kind of hangs around.

A couple years later, Maggie becomes increasingly worried about her lonely old dad. She sets him up with her friend Charlotte (of all people), figuring it would get them both out of her hair. Papa Verver and Charlotte hit it off and get hitched, but he and Maggie remain very close – often leaving Charlotte and the Prince to their own devices…

… so no prizes for guessing what happens next 😉 While Maggie and Mr Verver are off having special father-daughter time, Charlotte and the Prince start getting it on. Apparently, James was a visionary who recognised the market for stepmother-in-law porn way back in 1904.

Relationships in The Golden Bowl - Henry James - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is where the symbol/plot device of “the golden bowl” comes in. See, the Prince had gone shopping with Charlotte prior to his wedding, looking for a wedding gift for Maggie. They came up with bupkis, but while they were looking they shared A Moment over a golden bowl in a random shop in the city. Years later, Maggie enters that very same shop and buys that very same golden bowl (which doesn’t say much for their stock turnover). The shopkeeper follows her home, claiming that he “accidentally overcharged” her for it and wants to give her the change (this is laughably contrived, but it’s not even the most unbelievable part). While he’s in Maggie’s house, he spots a photo of Charlotte and the Prince. He miraculously remembers that he saw them together in his store years ago, and suggests to Maggie that they’re having an affair, before he disappears into the night. That’s how Maggie twigs what’s going on. Yeah, right!

Anyway, setting that stretch of logic aside, Maggie goes and confronts her husband (and he breaks down, confessing straight away, simp). She is mortified by the affair, and insists that no one should know that she knows. She deftly arranges a pretense under which her father and Charlotte are to return to America together, leaving Maggie and the Prince to salvage the smouldering remains of their dumpster-fire marriage. Sure enough, as soon as Charlotte is out of sight, the Prince goes back to whispering sweet nothings in Maggie’s ear, and promising her that he only has eyes for her. Pffft!

Just like in The Turn of the Screw (James found a formula that worked and stuck to it!), it seems like a simple enough plot. It’s certainly not as complex as some of the others I’ve encountered in Keeping Up With The Penguins. But, damn! It took me for-fucking-ever to read The Golden Bowl. James went out of his way to crack a nut with the mother of all sledgehammers.

I ended up having to look up chapter summaries of The Golden Bowl online, to recap what I had just read and make sure I was following what was happening. In fact, I had to use almost every trick in my how-to-finish-a-book-you-hate arsenal. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the allure of a unique and complex style, but James’s was literally an impediment to my reading. I didn’t think I could possibly find a book more difficult to read than Mrs Dalloway, but here we are.

To say that James’s writing is dense would be the understatement of the century. His supporters argue that the writing is “beautiful”, that James captures the stresses of modern marriage and the “circuitous methods” one employs to overcome them (fancy language for fucking around, it seems), but it’s all a long-winded way of saying that James wrote a bloated thesis on how to stand by your man. I mean, I get that he was trying to pit the adulterers (the Prince and Charlotte) against the self-involved narcissists (Maggie and Mr Verver), but should it really be that hard to communicate the notion that it takes two to tango?

The Golden Bowl ended up on my reading list because it was ranked by The Guardian as one of the top 100 greatest books written in English. I say: boo to that! It bored and frustrated me in previously unimaginable ways. I think that James and I need to take some time apart… forever sounds good to me. I recommend reading The Golden Bowl if you’re participating in a competition to find the book with the most commas and/or run-on sentences. That’s about all it has to offer, as far as I can see.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Golden Bowl:

  • “The worst novel I’ve tried to read is Hideaway, by Dean Koontz. The Golden Bowl is the worst novel I ever finished. It seems to take place on another planet, one where there is nothing to do but think about who is doing what to whom. The writing is beyond bad. Spare yourself.” – Larry the Lawyer
  • “…. Henry James is not my cup of tea. Tea being an appropriate metaphor, as Mr James could no doubt write fifty pages about how a woman holds her cup of tea with her pinkie finger extended just so, therefore indicating to the rest of the group her inner turmoils, her family history, and what she fed the dog for dinner….” – Elmore Hammes
  • “The language in this “novel” is so pretentious and convoluted as to be largely unreadable by the average reader. It seems that James has never met a comma he didn’t like, and uses them to imbed all sorts of modifiers and asides. Although the graduate students may attach some deeper meaning to this, I suspect he really didn’t have a clear idea of anything he wanted to say so he simply rambled on. At least with Faulkner there is a payoff….” – Stan Eissinger
  • “I found the lives of people who had nothing better to do but visit each other and gossip, woefully uninteresting.” – Ms Katharine L. Kane

Learn from my mistake: book recommendations from friends aren’t always the gold you’d hope they’d be! Check out the five mistakes you probably make when you’re picking your next read here.

The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

Henry James could never be accused of breviloquence. The Turn Of The Screw is what he called a “tale” – a fictional story with a single plot, too long to be a “short story” (today we call them novellas). In addition to these “tales”, he wrote plays, criticisms, autobiography, travel stories, and some twenty novels (including The Golden Bowl, also on my to-be-read list). Wordy bastard.

The Turn Of The Screw - Henry James - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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James got ample validation in his time: magazine publishers went gaga for tales towards the end of the 19th century. They were the perfect length to publish in serialised form – not so long that readers would lose interest, but long enough that you could guarantee that sales of the magazine would peak for at least a few weeks (cha-ching!). The Turn Of The Screw was one such story; it appeared in Collier’s Weekly magazine between January and April 1898. It was later published as a stand-alone book, and then eventually revised for what is now called the New York edition (where James made substantial changes, including the ages of central characters).

James loved ghost stories – and he wrote quite a few – but he was bored by the tropes of the genre. He preferred stories that, as he put it, “embroidered the strange and sinister onto the very type of the normal and easy”. Or, to put it in words that an actual human would use, he liked it better when the “ghosts” could easily be tricks of the mind, or something equally normal in day-to-day life, but the reader is left wondering… what if?

He certainly stuck to that formula with The Turn Of The Screw. It’s kind of a story-within-a-story – an unnamed narrator listens to a friend read a manuscript, apparently written by some long-dead former governess. The governess was hired to look after two young orphans, their surviving uncle having no interest in raising them himself. The eldest, a boy, had been expelled from boarding school, and the governess is scared to ask why. She sets about taking care of the children and educating them without seeking any additional information, while the uncle goes off cavorting and demands he be kept out of it.

The governess worries that she’s going crazy, because she starts seeing mysterious figures (a man and a woman) that no one else can see – never a good sign, eh? They come and go, in a way that seems – to the governess – very ghosty. She then learns that the previous governess and her secret lover are both dead, and deduces that they are now (obviously) haunting the children.

What is it about young children that makes any story instantly more creepy? The kids seem to know the ghosts, but they won’t give the governess a straight answer when she asks about them. The youngest (a girl) gets so upset by the governess’ incessant questioning that she demands to be taken away and never see the governess again. It seems like a bit of an overreaction to me, but kids aren’t known to be reasonable.

Then, later that night, the governess discovers the reason for the young boy’s expulsion – he was “saying things” (old-timey schools were very harsh, it would seem). As they’re having a heart-to-heart about it, the male ghost appears, and the governess tries to shield the young boy… only to look down and find that the kid has died! When she looks up, the ghost has gone. WTAF?!

It’s a simple enough story (there’s no sub-plots, nothing else going on, it’s all very straight-forward), but James’s meandering prose makes it seem a lot more complicated. Even though it’s short, it’s a really dense read, and it took me forever to get through it. At first, I thought I was struggling because I’d picked it up in the midst of a really intense wine hangover, but the more I read the more confident I became that the fault lay with James and his inability to coherently articulate a thought.

I could only get on at all… by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction usual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding, after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.

One of James’s more readable passages, The Turn Of The Screw (Chapter 22)

As far as literary critique goes, the central question seems to be: are the ghosts real, or is the governess just bonkers? On the one hand, the story alludes to Jane Eyre and the governess can be likened to both the character of Jane and the character of Bertha (the mad wife that Rochester locked in the attic). This would seem to indicate that she is, in fact, nuts. On the other hand, nothing that James writes actually confirms this, and what fun is a ghost story if it was all a delusion in the end? In the end, all critics pretty much fall into one of three camps:

1) The governess was crazy;

2) The governess was not crazy, and ghosts are real; or

3) Trying to work it all out is stupid, it defeats the purpose and ignores the masterful way that James created ambiguity in his storytelling.

Which camp am I in? Well, to be honest, I’m not sure I really care enough about The Turn Of The Screw to pitch a tent in any of them. Perhaps I lean towards the third camp, because I think that anyone who claims to have “the answer” is full of themselves, but I also think that the idea of a “crazy” governess makes for a much more interesting story. More than anything, I think that James would be grossly pleased with himself if he knew that we were all still arguing the point, well over a century after publication. The only way to really “figure it out” is to read it for yourself and decide on your own.

My tl;dr summary of The Turn Of The Screw would be this: a governess goes bonkers and starts seeing ghosts (that may or may not be real), kind of like an old-timey Sixth Sense, but told in the wordiest-possible way.

P.S. I figured, while I was at it, I’d go ahead and read The Golden Bowl next… and my review is up now!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Turn Of The Screw:

  • “This book was supposed to be a horror/mystery/thriller type story and I saw nothing scary about it. What I did see was two maids who couldn’t keep from gossiping and making up tales with absolutely nothing to give them credence.” – Paula
  • “There are no more commas left in the world for anyone else because Henry James USED THEM ALL.” – BarbMama
  • “It is SO boring. Takes pages and pages to get to the point which is about some woman with an overactive imagination. Had to stop reading it (very rare for me).” – Meandering
  • “…. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who liked WUTHERING HEIGHTS, which belongs in the same genre and in the same rubbish bin….” – Richard Niichel

Party Going – Henry Green

I think we all know by now that if you take a handful of rich people and put them in a confined space, you’re going to get some good drama. It’s a formula that’s worked for reality TV for years, and before that, Henry Green used it as the premise for his 1939 novel Party Going.

Party Going, according to the blurb, is a “darkly comic valediction to what W.H. Auden famously described as the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s”. It’s a slim volume, closer to a novella in length than a novel. Most editions don’t actually publish it stand-alone; it’s usually packaged alongside two of Green’s other novels (Living, and Loving). The introduction to this copy was written by Amit Chaudhuri, and it’s full of name-drops. Henry Green was a contemporary of Graham Greene. He was an Oxford friend of Evelyn Waugh. John Updike called him a “saint of the mundane”. And Virginia Woolf’s imprint, the Hogarth Press, published Party Going. As to Green’s style, Chaudhuri says this book is a “masterpiece of literary impressionism”.

“Green in fact stands somewhere between James Joyce, in his tendency to be intolerant of ‘normal’ English syntax and punctuation, and Virginia Woolf, in his sense of how narrative can be shaped by things outside of event.”

Amit Chaudhuri, Introduction

There aren’t a whole lot of “events” in this plot, really, so it’s a good thing there’s other stuff to shape the narrative, otherwise I don’t know where we’d be. Six young, wealthy people – Max, Amabel, Angela, Julia, Evelyn, and Claire – all gather at a train station en route to a house party in France. They find that all the trains are delayed due to severe fog, so they take rooms in the adjacent railway hotel (rather than linger on the platform with the unwashed masses). That’s about all of the action, really; the rest of the story plays out in their relationships and gossiping, and Green tells different versions of it simultaneously.

The historical context for Party Going is important. Yes, they’re all idle rich bitches, and idle rich bitches are equally vapid and shallow, no matter where or when they are, but the reader should bear in mind that this all takes place in England right before the outbreak of WWII. It’s a dark contrast, really: the minutia of their sparkly lives and scandals, set against the backdrop of an emerging conflict that will devastate the world. These characters, oblivious and self-obsessed, are “waltzing blithely towards oblivion”. An English major might say that the train-delaying fog actually represents the cold, menacing threat of the future.

Party Going consists mostly of talk, which is mostly about nothing. Once the premise of the delayed train is established, the only real “action” to be found is a battle between Julia and Amabel for the affections of playboy Max. And there’s one strange woman, Miss Fellowes (Claire’s aunt): she falls subject to a mysterious “illness” (Green seems to imply drunkenness, but I could be wrong), and becomes obsessed with a dead pigeon she finds. While her aunt is flailing and wailing about the pigeon, Claire focuses on trying to convince everybody that she’s not heartless for wanting to leave to party with them instead of sticking around to care for the old biddy. Well, it seems important to Claire at least that everyone knows that; no one else really gives a shit. Suffice to say that all of these characters are spoiled, selfish, and horny. They treat their staff (maids and porters) like commodities, to be traded and summoned at will. All they think about is how best to fiddle the social abacus to benefit themselves.

There’s not much else to say about Party Going, really. If you didn’t enjoy Mrs Dalloway, then this is not the book for you. It’s more readable, yes, and less intensely modernist, but at the end of the day, it’s still a short book that takes a long time to read, about a bunch of privileged white people lolling about and preparing for a party.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Party Going:

  • “Short on wit.” – uncle tom
  • “John Updike is one of my favorite writers, but I found reading Henry Green like reading Upstairs, Downstairs in ultra-slow motion.” – J.M. Walker

15 Classic Books With Female Protagonists

Want to read more classic books, but sick of reading about white men saving the day? Never fear! I’ve got you covered with this list of classic books with female protagonists.

15 Classic Books With Female Protagonists - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

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Charlotte Brontë has been called “the first historian of private consciousness” for the way she wrote the narrator in her novel Jane Eyre. It’s a moving and elegant depiction of a woman’s inner world in a time period not that far removed from our own, all things considered. A young woman endures loss and loneliness to forge her own path of independence, working as a governess. A man – the enigmatic Mr Rochester – thinks he’ll save the day by marrying her, only to have his own nefarious schemes unveiled and ruin it all. In the end, it’s Jane who saves the day, her lover’s and her own. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride And Prejudice - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jane Austen wrote a stack of classic books with female protagonists – in fact, it’s all she really wrote over the course of her short life. The most prominent in her oeuvre remains Pride And Prejudice, the story of a woman who has to overcome her first impressions and preconceived notions for a shot at happiness. There’s a lot of critical analysis of P&P, and debate as to whether it could be construed as a feminist text still rages, but for me it comes down to this: Elizabeth Bennet tells a man she wants nothing to do with him unless he pulls his socks up, and he does. That feels like a win for women. Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here.

Tess Of The d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Tess Of The D'Urburvilles - Thomas Hardy - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’ve got the stomach for classic books about women being treated badly, you can give Tess Of The d’Urbervilles a go. Tess Durbeyfield is raised in poverty, and claims kinship with the wealthy d’Urberville family in order to secure part of their fortune. Her new cousin, Alec, is a real piece of work, and he ‘ruins’ her (in the Victorian sense of the word). She moves on as best she can, but she soon finds that she can’t escape her past as easily as she hoped. It’s widely regarded as the most moving and poetic of Hardy’s novels, but it’s also one of the most disheartening and depressing.

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell


If you needed proof that classic books with female protagonists can still be deeply problematic, you’ll find it in Gone With The Wind. This classic of American literature (and film, of course) depicts a laughably romanticised view of a woman’s journey to self-actualisation against the backdrop of the Civil War in the South. Never mind the slavery, look at the outfits! This can be a tough one to read for a contemporary reader, but if you can quiet your qualms, you’ll find that Scarlett O’Hara is a fascinating character. She’s selfish and vain, she makes terrible choices, and she manipulates the men in her life to get what she wants – and yet, she’s undoubtedly the heroine of this story.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

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The titular protagonist of Leo Tolstoy’s epic Anna Karenina is the mother of all self-destructive girls with main character syndrome. Her story entails an extramarital affair with cavalry officer Alexei Vronsky. They make a half-hearted attempt to keep it a secret, but Anna impulsively confesses to her husband and they go public, in a move that scandalises their friends and family. Anna and Vronsky move to Italy, hoping to escape the fall-out, but they’re eventually pulled back to Russia and their lives totally unravel. It’s the ultimate fuck-around-and-find-out story, with Anna bearing the brunt of her bad decisions in the end. Read my full review of Anna Karenina here.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I have a rule for recommending Little Women to first-time readers: you can only pick up this book if you have a good understanding of the context in which Louisa May Alcott wrote it, and the subtlety of her subversion of societal norms. Without that background knowledge, it’s all too easy to write off the story of the March sisters as sentimental stuff “for girls” (which is, indeed, what Alcott’s publishers asked her to write). When you read between the lines, however, you’ll find one of the fiercest classic books with female protagonists in the American canon, with Jo March representing all women who choose a career for themselves in spite of society pushing them towards more ‘womanly’ pursuits. Read my full review of Little Women here.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne - Reviewed on Keeping Up With The Penguins

Hester Prynne has got to be one of the most hard-done-by female protagonists in classic literature. In The Scarlet Letter, she makes the terminal mistake of having an affair with a priest in Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony. She can’t even deny her indiscretion after giving birth to a child (the most annoying child I’ve ever encountered in fiction, just by-the-by), but she keeps the name of her suitor under wraps. She’s punished, and cruelly, by her community, forced to wear a large red A on her clothes to identify her to all and sundry as an adulteress. The priest gets away with it all scot-free… or does he? Read my full review of The Scarlet Letter here.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

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Madame Bovary is one of my favourite classic books with a female protagonist, if for no other reason than Emma is relatable as all heck. When she gets married, as women of her station are expected required to do, she quickly finds that it’s not the fairytale she was sold all her life. Rather than meekly accepting her fate, she goes off the deep end and she does it in style. She drinks heavily, she overspends on luxury clothes, she has disappointing affairs with even more disappointing men. Perhaps some might read it as a cautionary tale, but I love to see a woman set her shitty life on fire in fiction. Good for her!

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

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If you’re looking for classic books with female protagonists that are also quick and easy reads, Agnes Grey will sort you out. Most editions of this novella run only 100 pages or so, and the story isn’t exactly tough to follow. A young woman chooses to contribute to her family’s finances, against their strenuous objection, by becoming a governess. She thinks it’ll be all finger-painting and nap time, but instead she discovers that children are awful and working for rich people is the worst. Still, she persists, and eventually forges for herself a situation where she relies on no one else to put food on her plate, which is as good as a happily-ever-after for any woman in Victorian times. Read my full review of Agnes Grey here.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The two female protagonists of Vanity Fair represent the duality that we see throughout a lot of classic literature. It’s the Madonna/whore complex, the meek and mild lady versus the outspoken and brash harlot. Naturally, your own personal inclinations will lead you to side with one or the other, but it’s a fascinating read whichever way you turn. Sweet Amelia Sedley is on the up-and-up, and yet she doesn’t get half as far in life as the scheming Becky Sharp. Their relationship waxes and wanes across the course of the epic, as they each choose to deal with the restrictions placed on their gender in Regency England in their own way. Read my full review of Vanity Fair here.

Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

Picnic At Hanging Rock - Joan Lindsay - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Lovely young ladies in white linen dresses setting out for a picnic on St Valentine’s Day in the year of Australia’s federation. It hardly sounds like the stuff of classic horror novels, but for anyone who’s read Picnic At Hanging Rock, that one-sentence summary will send shivers up the spine. Three girls, under the blaze of an afternoon sun, decide to climb into the shadows of the volcanic outcropping – only to disappear, never to be seen again. This mysterious (and, it must be said, strangely slightly horny) novel ends on a massive cliffhanger, and proves that schoolgirls aren’t always squealing over nothing.

The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James

The Turn Of The Screw - Henry James - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Henry James, by his own admission, was bored with the ghost stories of his day. That’s why he wrote The Turn Of The Screw, where the scares come from the ambiguity of the events that unfold. Was his governess protagonist really seeing ghosts, or was she quietly insane? The choice of a woman as protagonist is telling, as the long history of women not being believed or written off as “hysterical” is what really sells it. If you’re going to read any of James’s work, it should be this classic book with a female protagonist (because it’s one of the shortest, and he could get real wordy). Read my full review of The Turn Of The Screw here.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

My Brilliant Career - Miles Franklin - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The protagonist of My Brilliant Career is a 16-year-old girl, mostly because Miles Franklin herself was a 16-year-old girl when she wrote it. That’s not all Franklin and her character Sybylla had in common, either. Both were headstrong, energetic, and frustrated with the boredom of living in a small outback town. Franklin wrote the story mostly as a way to entertain her friends; she sent it to acclaimed poet Henry Lawson without even a hope that he might enjoy it and pass it on to a publisher. In the end, she had to revoke the rights to publication until after her death, because too many of her loved ones and community members recognised themselves in the pages (and didn’t much like what they saw). Read my full review of My Brilliant Career here.

North And South by Elizabeth Gaskell

North And South - Elizabeth Gaskell - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In North And South, Elizabeth Gaskell uses the life story of a young woman from Southern England to critique the ravages of the Industrial Revolution on society. Margaret Hale is, for lack of a better term, a country bumpkin, forced by economic hardship to move to the turbulent North. She witnesses the origins of the fight for workers’ rights, with the first occupational strikes and the rise of the nouveau riche. She has a soft spot for John Thornton, a cotton mill owner who sees nothing wrong with exploiting his workers, and so her principles must do battle with her heart. It’s a lofty novel disguised as a love story, as many of the best classic books with female protagonists are.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos - Books Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ve saved Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for last, because in my mind, it’s the best example of classic books with female protagonists being overlooked and disregarded because they have female protagonists. This story is styled as the diary of socialite Lorelai Lee as she drinks champagne and seeks a husband in Jazz Age America. It’s fun, it’s sexy, it’s hilarious – and it’s a blazing social satire of the gender roles of the time. But being about a woman, and written by a woman, it’s relegated to the dusty bottom shelf while stinkers like The Great Gatsby are lauded and forced upon unwitting high-schoolers. So, fight the patriarchy, and read Anita Loos. Thank you for coming to my TED talk. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

10 Books With Ambiguous Endings

One of the easiest ways to divide the reading community is to release a book with an ambiguous ending. Some readers love it when things are left open, with no clear resolution for the characters and their problems. Others hate it, and smash the one-star button on Goodreads straight away. Some won’t even pick up a book if they suspect it might end ambiguously! Here are ten books with ambiguous endings that you should either pick up straight away or avoid, depending which camp you fall into.

Obviously, spoilers ahead… kind of… is it even possible to spoil books with ambiguous endings?

10 Books With Ambiguous Endings - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

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Most of Sally Rooney’s books have somewhat ambiguous endings. It all began with her first (and, in my opinion, best), Conversations With Friends. The story of two friends, caught up in a Golden Bowl-esque love quadrangle, doesn’t have an “ending” per se. There are climaxes for most of the plot points, but none of them are really “resolved” by the final page. I suppose you could make the argument that Frances makes major strides in terms of her self-awareness and boundaries, but her personal development certainly isn’t finished. But, Rooney wrote “fin”, and she knows best, I guess. Read my full review of Conversations With Friends here.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

We’re talking specifically about the book here, not the TV series (which took the story off in all kinds of new directions): The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the most infamous ambiguous endings in contemporary literature. Margaret Atwood’s eerie dystopia is styled as an account of Offred, a woman enslaved for her fertility, but the story ends abruptly with her attempted escape from the Republic of Gilead. Were her “saviors” members of a real resistance movement, or was it all a ruse by the regime to catch out rebels? Did she make it to safety in the free states, or was she shipped off to “the colonies” to be tortured? There were some answers in the sequel, The Testaments, but there are a still a lot of unanswered questions. Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.

The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James

The Turn Of The Screw - Henry James - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

James loved ghost stories – and he wrote quite a few – but he was bored by the tropes of the genre. He preferred stories that, as he put it, “embroidered the strange and sinister onto the very type of the normal and easy”. Or, to put it in words that an actual human would use, he liked it better when the “ghosts” could easily be tricks of the mind, or something equally normal in day-to-day life, but the reader is left wondering… what if? That’s what he did with The Turn Of The Screw, the story of a governess who believes her two charges are being haunted by the ghosts of their former governess and her lover. The ambiguous ending does nothing to confirm whether the ghosts were real or whether they were all in her head – exactly as James intended. Read my full review of The Turn Of The Screw here.

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse

The Sanatorium - Sarah Pearse - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sarah Pearse really threw thriller readers for a loop with the ambiguous ending of The Sanatorium. It’s a locked-door mystery in the spookiest of all settings (a former mental asylum that has been renovated and repurposed as a luxury hotel, in remote snowy mountains). The story takes all the usual twists and turns, leading up to the Big Reveal in the penultimate chapter. Nothing seems amiss… until the epilogue reveals that someone(?) has been stalking the main character, and remains at large, unidentified. It was clearly a set-up for the sequel, but it left readers scratching their heads. Read my full review of The Sanatorium here.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi - Susanna Clarke - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s hard not to fall in love with the titular character of Piranesi – a man who lives alone in a labyrinth-like house, large enough to have its own weather systems, caring for the creatures that live within it and beading shells into his hair. The ambiguous ending to his story is an extra-sharp double-edged sword. He makes his way back into our “real” world, but he’s not exactly thrilled about it; he misses his home, desperately. It’s realistic, but it’s sad. You just want poor Piranesi to be happy and fulfilled! But should he return to his in-between world to find that? This one will live in your head rent-free for a long time after The End. Read my full review of Piranesi here.

Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

Picnic At Hanging Rock - Joan Lindsay - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Say “books with ambiguous endings” to any Australian reader, and chances are one of the first they’ll name is Picnic At Hanging Rock. The ending to this classic Australian gothic story is iconic for its ambiguity. Lindsay went so far as to include an additional chapter with her last will and testament, to finally resolve all of the unanswered questions for her legion readers after her death. To be honest, though, the “big reveal” just muddied the waters even more. The mystery, in itself, is a big part of the fun: what happened to the school girls who vanished among the rocks on a Valentine’s Day picnic?

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations - Charles Dickens - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Dickens wrote classics of English literature, stories that stand the test of time, novels with your standard beginning-middle-end. That’s why Great Expectations sticks out from his oeuvre like the proverbial sore thumb. It seems like Pip is going to finally get his happy ending, when his beloved Estella finally falls into his arms and they confess their abiding affection… but then there’s this line. Pip says he saw “no shadow of another parting from her” after that. The end. What does that mean? Readers and academics are still arguing about it to this day. Of all the books with ambiguous endings, this one pissed me off personally the most. Read my full review of Great Expectations here.

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell


“After all, tomorrow is another day!” It’s not often that books with ambiguous endings don’t just leave things open, but have the main character actually say that the story is going to continue tomorrow. Gone With The Wind is special, in that regard. Margaret Mitchell’s sweeping (if problematic) epic about the Civil War-era South has a lot of ups and downs, and ends on one of the latter. The heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, has been abandoned by her roguish rich husband, Rhett Butler, just as she’s realised she does truly love him. After all she’s been through (ahem), it’s a cruel twist of fate – one that she commits to overcoming, but the reader never gets to see how it turns out.

Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

Call Me By Your Name - Andre Aciman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

One of the problems with writing books with ambiguous endings in this day and age is that readers will find you on social media and hound you until you write another book that actually wraps things up. That’s basically what happened to Andre Aciman with his best-seller, Call Me By Your Name. It begins as a coming-of-age love story set in Italy, where 17-year-old Elio falls for 24-year-old visiting scholar Oliver (yes, the age gap is a bit of an ick). Hundreds of pages later, the characters are in their forties, and Elio demands Oliver decide whether there is still a romantic spark between them – and it ends there, on a “will they, won’t they?”. Readers were so infuriated that Aciman had to finally placate them with the sequel, Find Me. Read my full review of Call Me By Your Name here.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Bell Jar is a heart-wrenching read, being as it is a book about a promising young woman’s depression and suicidality – but it’s all the more difficult to stomach for its ambiguous ending. Esther survives horrible mistreatment and a suicide attempt, but just barely, and with the right treatment she seems to be doing well… except, as she wonders to the reader, the bell jar of her mental illness may again descend over her life. The story ends without a happily ever after, barely even a happily for now. There’s every chance that Esther may fall into the dark trap again, as the author herself did just weeks after publication. Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

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