How To End A Book

At the request of readers, I discuss the ending of How To Be A Good Wife, and offer you the chance to give Hector his comeuppance…
(Spoilers alert!)
How To Be A Good Wife has now been out in the world for four months.  Reading the reviews and listening to people talk about the book has been so wonderful.  Every time I’ve done an event, either in Australia or the UK, people have had such interesting questions about the book.   I wanted to thank anyone who came to those events, wrote a review, or shown support for the book.  I spent 3 years in a room with Marta, unable to discuss her with anyone apart from my agent and editor, so talking about her is such a delight.  I still have to remind myself that she is someone I made up: it’s hard to imagine she’s not out there somewhere, baking bread or cleaning her doll collection!
I think the most commonly asked questions refer to the ending of the novel.  Some people want to know what really happened.  Who is right: Marta or Hector?  
The openness of the ending was very important to me, and it was something I fought to keep during the editing process.  Ultimately, I wanted the book to raise more questions than it answered.  I wanted the book to linger in the mind, for Marta’s situation to resonate.  I wanted the reader to think about the domestic role of women in the past (and sometimes present) and whether it is good for a woman’s psychology.  
It is up to the reader to make the decision about Marta’s state of mind: whether these things she sees really happened to her, or whether she is suffering from a mental illness.  I wanted the reader to experience the difficulties the psychologists struggle with in diagnosing her.  To say either way what actually happened to Marta weakened the overall premise of the book for me, and answered a lot of the questions I wanted to raise in the reader’s minds.  If I had said definitively whether Hector had done these terrible things, I would have lost this ambiguity, and for me, that is where the power of the book lies.  Marta herself is not even certain: and this for me speaks of the powers of the human mind to cope with certain situations, and raises the question of whether we ever really know ourselves.

But What Do YOU think?

People often ask me who I believe.  Honestly, I change my mind about this, and I like that the reader has the space to do that.  But, I did a lot of research into Post Traumatic Shock Syndrome and Dissociative Identity Disorder, and until the final draft of the book, I strongly believed that Marta had suffered a severe trauma which had altered her psychology.  
While I was rewriting the final draft, I had a revelation which led to Hector’s character being implicated in what has happened to Marta.  Previously, he had been the good guy: a husband who had seen her through her difficulties, which had been exacted at the hands of another man. Marta had never told him about her experiences, but she was more aware of them.  I read several articles about the repression of memory in severe trauma, and it got me thinking about Marta’s awareness of what had happened to her.  I also began thinking about Hector, and thought how interesting it would be if I suggested that he was to blame.  This is how the current version of How To Be A Good Wife was born, three years into writing it.  
Therefore, throughout most of the process of the writing the book, I believed Marta that something terrible had happened to her, even if she was not conscious of it at the beginning of the book.  I will always have that basis of belief in her past, and although I like the idea of Hector being innocent, I will always come down more with Marta.  
From talking to readers, this is the most common experience for them too.  We are in Marta’s head, so of course we are more likely to side with her, even when she makes us doubt her reliability.  

Alternate Endings

As we headed towards publication, there was a lot of discussion about the end of the book.  When I first submitted it, the book ended with Marta left in the initial institution, in a small locked room similar to the one under the house.  This ending was too abrupt, and I wanted to find a balance between offering the reader a bit more closure, but not giving too much away about what actually happened. 
It was a difficult process: I felt I had put Marta in an impossible position.  I felt guilty about that, but every way I turned, it seemed that she wasn’t in control of the situation.  I wrote a ‘happy’ ending where Marta is left in the more comfortable facility: she can walk in the sun, Kylan can visit, and she is away from Hector.  But I realised that she was still living her life under the control of someone else.  Her place at the facility was being paid for by Hector, and she could not go beyond the grounds.  As in the valley, she is trapped in many of the same ways.  And the ‘memories’, or hallucinations, still haunt her.  
So I rewrote the ending again: adding Kylan’s wedding and the final scene.  I see it as Marta’s attempt to take back the control which has been taken away from her so many years before.  Whether you believe that these things happened to her, or if she has struggled with mental illness, either way, she has not been in control of what happened to her.
I’m sure many people will disagree with me about the ending, and will want vindication for Marta, or punishment for Hector.  But to admit that Hector did these things is also defining Marta’s condition.  I wanted it to be left ambiguous, for the reader to decide who they believe.

If you are interested in a ‘revenge’-style ending for Marta, or in reading the alternatives I came up with, let me know in the comments below and I’d be happy to publish them on my blog.  I’m sure I can come up with a way for Hector to get his comeuppance, if you believe he did anything wrong…

8 Comments on “How To End A Book

  1. I sided with Marta. This book is one that I think I'll have to read a few times to properly understand though. To me, there was no doubt that Hector was the baddie. So pretty please write an alternate ending where he gets his just desserts?

  2. I like the original ending because it is reflective of real life where people developed “learned helplessness” through decades of conditioning. To pretend that we can just break free from the mental shackles would be an insult to all the abused (mentally and/or otherwise) people out there who can't break free without help

  3. I thought the ending was perfect Emma – if Hector had got his just desserts then that would have wrapped things up too neatly and not allowed the book to stay with the reader. If Marta had been left trapped in the institution, then it would feel like another female 'victim' story. So I sided with Marta and I thought the ending both showed the full extent of her repressed trauma and her idea of what 'control' could be.

  4. Thanks for this! From what I've gathered, many people have the same views about Hector. I will definitely write an alternate ending when I get a few minutes! Hope your writing is going well.

  5. Thanks for this insightful feedback Michael. I think that is a big reason why I found the book so difficult to end: it involved a great deal of sensitivity to oppressed people. I had to find the right balance without the tone being too depressing. Marta's decision was the most positive I could give her as it was abut her taking back some of the control which had been taken away from her.

  6. Thanks Natasha! I appreciate this, and it's great to hear considering how difficult it was to find a solution. I just finished If I Should Lose You and loved it: I particularly liked what you said about Alix and Dan's relationship solely existing in its beginnings, and how you contrasted that with Camille's marriage and how domestic life had intruded on their early bliss.

  7. Hi Emma,I enjoyed your talk at Subi library last night. It was particularly nice to hear about your inspiration for the Scandinavian setting and for Marta's character. I thought some of the audience members asked you some very good questions as well, questions I wouldn't have thought of myself, so that was nice too. I admit I was hoping you would give a more definitive answer about the ending as well, although I also understand your reasons for keeping it open-ended (and on re-reading my Goodreads review, I can see that understood them at the time I read the novel a couple of months ago, as well). I look forward to your future work, I am sure you will go far. I am jealous, you are living the career that I would love to have. All the best for your travels.Gemma

  8. Hi.I've read the ending as Marta's ending: a plunge into suicide (almost surely a successful one, this time around); an ending with closure (altough morally disturbing). Did I entirely misread the ending? Which action is taking place there then: a leisurely bit of swiming around? A sign of liberation for Marta?On the other hand, if Marta dies, then it means that there is a metanarrative twist: she would be a posthumous narrator (altough very much unlike the jovial Brás Cubas from Machado de Assis' book). As for unpunished Hector, this is all for the best. The ambiguity is not 50-50; we end in doubt, surely, but it's more the shadow of a reasonnable doubt: still, we believe she is right, he is the man who did what she (somewhat dubiously) remembers . Otherwise, there would be no moral disquietness, which is one point that gives meaning to the atmosphere of menace, of phychological confusion and insecurity, of a shifting reality; once we begin antecipating Marta's conclusion about her and Hector's past, we gather that her visons are not an artificial narrative device. Your book lingers in the reader's memory long after the book was closed because (among other things) of its narrative tone; it doesn't need alternative endings (that is, unless you're cooking up an ultra-ingenious hat trick). All the bet for your present writing.Paulo

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