Back in June, I reviewed Foreign Tongue by Vanina Marsot. You can read the review here. After reviewing the novel, the one theme that I continued to go back to, was the brief mention of American endings and how they differed from French endings. In regards to books, I know a lot of people that won’t read a book if it doesn’t have a happy ending. I thought it would be fun to ask Ms. Marsot if she could give us her take on American endings so Book Chatter and Other Stuff welcomes Vanina Marsot!!
Musings on American vs. French Endings by Vanina Marsot
In my novel, Foreign Tongue, the main character asks a French friend, “Tell me, what’s it called in French when a film ends happily, but in a way you don’t believe?”
Her friend answers, “An American ending.”
I didn’t make it up: this really is a French expression. Now, it’s not necessarily derisive or reductive, though it can be; it’s also not necessarily an unpleasant thing: lots of movies with “American endings” play to packed houses in France, as they do the world over. But I think the fact that French has a specific expression for something we immediately recognize points to something interesting about the difference between the French and American mentality about stories and story-telling.
Of course, the easy extrapolation would be: American endings=happy, facile, crowd-pleasing, superficial; French endings=unhappy, complex, sophisticated, profound. And this easy extrapolation fits with some of the stereotypes we have about both cultures. But easy extrapolations aren’t worth much: after all, lots of American books and films have unhappy or ambiguous endings, and there seem to be more and more French films with deliberately happy endings designed to court the American public, particularly the Oscar-voting public.
I have nothing against a good happy ending, but what I do dislike, and what I think the character in my novel refers to with regard to a happy ending that you don’t believe, is something that concerns me in all stories: whether the ending stays true to a story’s internal spine. By this, I mean I like characters and plots to remain true to their essence, however that essence is defined by its creator. They must bend and flex according to the rules that their own existence makes possible. Unless I’m reading some particularly genre-bending kind of fiction, I expect fiction characters to behave like human beings and to do things that humans do: fall in love, fight, move to another city, grieve, be unpredictable, lose a job, recover from political scandal, etc. I’d be thrown for a loop if a character could suddenly fly, or if visitors from Mars showed up at a backyard barbecue, or if people’s heads became Quasar TV sets from the 70s.
By the same token, I also like plot to remain true to its specific universe. I like nothing more than to be surprised in a book: a plot twist, something I never saw coming, an unusual, original wrong turn. But the novel has to set up a world in which this is possible, even if you never saw it coming. That’s how I understand the French notion about the American ending: it points not so much to a predictability (we all know, for instance, that romantic comedies end well), but the sense that something has been forced on the story that may not honor the universe of the story in order to satisfy the requirements of the genre. That somehow, this mirror of the actual world we live in, in which happy endings are less frequent than we’d like and random tragedy and bad circumstances often interfere, has been bent and warped into submission in order to satisfy a longing for a fake, ideal world, where everyone lives happily ever after.
But then you have to ask: what is a “true” happy ending? In the classic sense, my book doesn’t have a happy ending: my heroine does not ride off into the sunset with a man. But it doesn’t strike me as an unhappy ending either: she rides into the sunset with a much better sense of who she is, which may be the best tool you can possibly have in terms of setting out to lead a fulfilling life, whether that means finding true love, or meaning and purpose.
Perhaps this point of view is formed by the longing for the thing we do not have. When I’m in France, I long for Mexican food and tuna melts; when I’m in the US, I miss the flakey croissants hot out of the oven from the boulangerie. One of my American friends in France often sighs in exasperation at movies that are “so French!” By this, she means that the story meanders in a seemingly pointless way, has no real (or satisfying) ending, has a tremendous amount of sometimes baffling subtext instead of story or plot ,and/or is deliberately artificial, calling attention to the artifice of filmmaking. This is a criticism I’ve heard the French level at their own oeuvres as well. I recently read a French novel that was one long, meandering letter to a former flame. While it was an interesting exercise, there was a tedium about reading it that no amount of beautiful language could overcome.
So perhaps there is an equivalent criticism we can level at the French, for being “so French.” While it’s true that life often is messy, storytelling is still a convention with certain requirements. And while they aren’t ironclad, perhaps one of those requirements is that a story actually conclude, end properly in a way that remains true to the story—whatever that means—as opposed to just exhausting itself, petering out, or taking a bizarre tangential leap in a seemingly random direction.
Of course, even as I write this, I want to contradict it, as I don’t like making grand pronouncements about how stories should work, but I remember something someone said to me a long time: “there’s a reason the narrative form continues: it’s because it works.” So maybe “guideline” is a better term: I think we all, both French and Americans, want a satisfying ending, one that we can believe. But maybe how we get there and what that means will continue to be as different and varied as our approaches to stories and writing.
UPDATE: this giveaway has ended! Thanks!
HarperCollins in conjunction with Book Club Girl have provided me with FIVE copies of Foreign Tongue to giveaway to my readers. In addition to the book, they have also provided some French-type lip gloss for each winner!
This giveaway is open to the U.S. and Canada. There are TWO ways to enter. Please follow the instructions carefully because I want every entry to count!
1. Post a comment for ONE entry. Make sure that I have a way to contact you.
2. For another entry, Tweet about this giveaway and be sure to include @TiBookChatter so I can track it. After you Tweet, post a comment here telling me you did so. This must be a separate comment.
This giveaway will run until Friday, July 31, 2009 at 10pm (PDT). The winner will be selected randomly and announced on Monday, August 3, 2009. I will contact the winner for his/her mailing address so be sure to include a way for me to contact you.