A Happy Ending Even a Cynic Could Love

Everyone knows (or should) the story of The Gambler.  On a late night train, bound for the elusive Nowhere, a world-weary traveler shares a compartment with a grizzled gambler. For the price of a single sip of cheap whiskey this traveler receives that for which others have spent their entire lives searching: true wisdom, served up in convenient gambling metaphor with a catchy beat.

You gotta know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away, know when to run
You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealing’s done

I assume that, by now, you realize I’m talking about Kenny Roger’s Gambler, not Dostoyevsky’s.  Ok, so it’s a bit of a hokey song.  Still, there’s one gem of a line which has stuck with me ever since I first heard this song sometime in my childhood.

Every hand’s a winner
And every hand’s a loser
And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.

Call me a cynic (it’s been done many times before), but I can’t think of truer words.  Our lot in life is not subject to some grand scheme of fairness – good people are dealt rubbish hands and, for lack of a more politic term, assholes sometimes run the table.  Happy endings, when they happen, are few and far between and tragedy usually lurks not far beneath the surface.

As a realist, I need my books to reflect this.  Stories with happy endings must earn them, not through any particular virtues of their characters, but through their recognition that happiness is, at best, fragile and ephemeral.  Anything else comes off as cheap, a fairy tell with no real relevance.  This is a tough line to toe.  Cross it, and the book feels like fluff.   Hang too far back, and you start staring into some pretty dark places.  That perfect zone where a story’s conclusion is genuinely happy without crossing over into shallow escapist fantasy is about as common as real-life happy endings.


Emma Donoghue’s wonderful Room manages to succeed spectacularly.

For anyone who has been secluded in a bunker or in a coma for the past year, Room tells the story of a mother and son, held prisoner in an eleven-by-eleven foot room by their captor, a man who shows up every once in a while to deliver supplies and rape the mother.

Sounds like a typical episode of Criminal Minds or Law and Order.  I was skeptical at first, thinking  that I had to have seen some iteration of this story before on television.

What makes the book unique and wonderful is that it is told entirely from the point of view of Jack, the five year old boy.  He has been convinced that Room is the only real place and there is nothing outside.  The 11×11 foot room is his world – literally.  Having Jack tell the story is risky – there are plenty of more interesting literary techniques which have been dubbed ‘gimmicks.’  But, Donoghue pulls it off flawlessly.  The first half of the book, told within the confines of the room, manages to fill a rather ordinary space with the unbound wonder of a five year old boy.

Where the book really shines, however, is in the second half, after Jack and his mother are able to pull off a Count of Monte Cristo-style escape.  This is the section that brings me back to my earlier comments about happy endings.  After their escape, it would have been so easy for the author to pull a “happily ever after” and have Jack and his mom ride off into the sunset, so to speak.  The book is so well-written, it might have still been a better-than-average read.  Had Donoghue chosen this route, however, it would have been nothing more than a very good novelization of a made-for-television movie.

Instead, mother and son both are forced to confront a outside world which, paradoxically, is more claustrophobic than Room.  The reader, through the eyes of Jack, is overwhelmed and terrified by the very idea that the world is bigger than a single room.  More poignantly, Jack finds himself no longer at the center of Mother’s existence as she is pulled apart by grief, guilt, and regret.

The ending of the book, while predictable, is nonetheless beautiful specifically because of what Jack and his mother have had to endure and what they may still have to endure in the future.  It’s an earned happy ending, genuine in it’s complexity and heartfelt enough to even bring a tear to the eye of this hardened cynic.



  1. Great post and it makes me want to go pick up the book. I like a happy ending but like you, I need it to feel earned. I hate when the author seems to have given up and just slaps a happy ending on there. When that happens it feels like the author didn’t trust the reader (me) to go along with a non-fairy tale ending. Not to say I don’t appreciate seeing the good guys come out ahead just because that’s fair every once in awhile. Just not as the norm.

  2. @Parrish – I had no idea it was based on a true story – although this type of crime does pop up on the news every once in a while.
    @Alley – Agreed – Sometimes it’s nice to read a book where the bad guy gets what’s coming to him and the good guys come out on top. But, books that provide a little more complexity are definitely more substantial. You’d like this one – it was a great read.
    @Man of La Book- A lot of people have said that they thought the book slowed down in the second half. I’m not sure why it resonated with me so much. I found it fascinating how Jack had to deal with the world and how freedom affects the relationship with his mother.
    @Mel u – definitely pick this one up. It’s short and very, very affecting!

  3. Great review. I read and enjoyed this book last year. Some people say that they find the child narrator gimmicky, but I thought Jack was believable. 🙂

  4. Yes it was inspired by the Jose Fritzl case in Austria 2008.
    This book was also a finalists for the Man Booker prize & also has received great reviews here in the UK.

  5. @Darlyn – Jack was THE reason the book worked, in my view. The story itself was harrowing, but nothing different than what you can see on a network TV crime drama. Jack’s voice was perfect for this story. Thanks for coming by!
    @Parrish – I have since read about the Fritzl case. Horrible, horrible stuff.

  6. Extraordinary review. I have been afraid to finish because I was terrified something just awful would happen to the boy and mother. Although I anticipated, at my point in the book, an escape, I realized that escape would render a new set of problems for both the mother and the boy. I am now anxious to finish. Thank you.

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