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?
Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.