The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
It’s not the book’s final resolution, which nods back to and ultimately subverts the titular “marriage plot,” that we mind — Mitchell deciding to leave Madeleine alone because he knows he’ll never be what she really wants sounds about right to us. But we’re all kinds of conflicted about how Eugenides chose to have her part ways with Leonard, the bipolar genius who she loves, and who has become powerless to stop ruining her life. The problem is that the author never seems to entirely understand this fantastic (reportedly David Foster Wallace-based) character he’s created, so everything from Leonard’s manic honeymoon episode to the depression that follows to his abrupt departure from Madeleine’s life feels cartoonish and unfulfilling.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
And speaking of DFW, one of the (many) fascinating things about Infinite Jest is the way it slowly becomes clear that, despite the novel’s intimidating length and complicated web of character interactions, much of the really important action isn’t described in the narrative. We don’t want to be too spoiler-ish here, but while we love the way the novel draws to a conclusion, we can understand why others feel short-changed by discovering that after 484,000 words and nearly 400 footnotes, you’re still left with plenty of thinking to do. — Tom Hawking
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Meanwhile, Eugenides’ marriage plot was still alive and well in the 1860s, when Louisa May Alcott was writing her masterpiece, Little Women. Reading the story of four very different sisters growing up in 19th-century Massachusetts is basically a rite of passage for pre-teen girls, and if you’re into that sort of thing (we were), it’s absorbing all the way through. But then it ends with the handy resolution of everyone getting married — and while motherly Meg turns out fine with Mr. Brooke, Jo refuses her soul mate Laurie’s proposal because she knows Beth loves him. Too bad saintly Beth dies, leaving reformed-brat Amy to scoop up Laurie and Jo to run a school for boys with her cranky husband, Professor Bhaer. And yet, everyone’s supposedly pretty happy about all of this. Not only is it unsatisfying to see independent, headstrong Jo tamed and domesticated, but these sub-optimal matches are kind of heartbreaking. Free Laurie!
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
It’s one of our favorite contemporary novels, but we’ve always thought that Donna Tartt’s novel about a clique of college aesthetes with a deadly secret suffered somewhat from its final act. After the book’s big mystery is revealed and manipulative ringleader Henry murders his blackmailer, good-ol’-boy Bunny, the group’s dissolution and plunge into utter lunacy takes a bit too long, the characters’ outsize, artsy personalities nearly verging on self-parody. Although this hardly ruins the book, it does suggest that Tartt was too in love with her corrupt cadre to say good-bye several pages earlier.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
The very best psychedelic novel for children is a Cheshire cat tale that takes us down the rabbit hole, where we meet a hookah-smoking caterpillar, attend a mad tea party, and play flamingo croquet with a guillotine-happy Queen of Hearts who hates white roses; our heroine changes sizes multiple times in the course of the book. It’s a marvelous journey, but the fact remains that it all ends with the standard cop out: “Oh, I’ve had such a curious dream!”
In the Woods by Tana French
Tana French’s 2007 debut novel begins with two mysteries: In the ’80s, three children set out to play in the woods, two disappear, and the other is found shocked and trembling, his shoes filled with blood and his memory blank. Twenty years later, the boy who survived is a detective sent to investigate the possibly related murder of a 12-year-old girl in those same woods. By the end of the book, the author provides a solution for only the latter homicide, leaving us to speculate about the original, and frankly more interesting, disappearance. Although it’s clear the author intends to riff a bit on the traditional murder mystery, getting to the bottom of the detective’s case but reminding us that an easy answer isn’t always possible, it’s hard not to come away from the novel feeling as unsatisfied as its troubled protagonist.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
No one’s denying that Wuthering Heights is one of the most powerful — not to mention visceral — love stories of all time. The story of Heathcliff and Catherine is one of longing and obsession and even sadism. The meat of the novel follows their endlessly frustrating romance and its repercussions, and is as utterly addictive as any escapist paperback you’ve ever read. It also makes you forget that the book is told from the point of view of a narrator, Lockwood, who’s at a pretty far remove from the main characters. Slogging through the first three chapters, about his stay at Wuthering Heights, isn’t difficult, but Lockwood also gets the last word in yet another trio of chapters. Sure, it includes the death of Heathcliff, but since he’s been dead for all intents and purposes for quite a while by the time his heart stops beating, this section is slow going. And don’t even get us started on that kicker…
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Who could resist getting swept up in Foer’s fantastical, cross-generational novel about a young, American writer named Jonathan Safran Foer who travels to Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Holocaust? But the plot coalesces a bit too coincidentally when the crew makes it to the field that was once Trachimbrod, the village Jonathan’s grandfather escaped from — and we eventually discover that Jonathan’s elderly guide once condemned his best friend to death at the hands of Nazis in that very same place. From then on, that story line (one of three threads Foer weaves together) strains under the weight of this extremely unlikely connection.
Room by Emma Donoghue
This deeply affecting book follows a woman who was kidnapped as a college student and has spent seven years captive in a tiny shed, accompanied for five of them by the son she conceived by her captor. Donoghue’s decision to make the boy her narrator lends a rare lightness to this dark subject matter. The story is riveting until, after the pair’s heart-pounding escape and bumpy homecoming, we understand that life outside the shed is difficult and painful in a different way for both mother and son, and the plot dissolves into a case study better fit for a child-development text than a novel.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
The original novel of suburban dissatisfaction introduces us to Frank and April Wheeler, a ’50s couple who have put aside big aspirations to live the two-kids-and-a-house-in-Connecticut dream, and who were apparently thrown together for the express purpose of torturing each other. In Revolutionary Road, they plan to start over in Paris, where the family can live a romantic life and Frank can ditch his office job for more creative pursuits. But the idea (which always seemed unlikely) falls apart when April becomes pregnant, and her half-suicidal attempt at self-abortion kills her. Plenty of great novels end with a protagonist causing her own death, whether on purpose or by accident, but Yates makes the couple’s predicament so bleak and inescapable that we can guess the outcome halfway through the novel — and the lack of subtlety or surprise makes the ending feel preachy.