We were having a drink at the time, and I tried my best not to let my jaw hit the table. I wondered if I'd heard her correctly.
"You read the last page before the first?" I asked.
"Yes," she confirmed.
"But doesn't that spoil the surprise?"
"I suppose so. But if I don't read that last page, I start worrying what's going to happen, whether the characters are going to be okay. I can't get through the book."
"But what if you don't like the ending?"
"I don't read the book."
I was dumbfounded. But then I started to ask others if they did this. And, to my surprise, she wasn't the only one.
I have to be honest, I don't get it. To me, a book (a traditional one at least) is a journey, a linear one. You start at point A and reach point B. Reading the ending first is like walking out of arrivals before you've sat in the departures lounge. In my universe, the ending doesn't even exist until I've read all the other pages.
When I further questioned the people who read back to front, it seemed that the desire to read the last page is often linked to the need for a happy ever after. That left me even more baffled.
You see, I've never needed a happy ending. Part of me subscribes to Dorothy Parker's view. The legendary acerbic wit was once asked to rewrite a screenplay and give it a happy ending. She replied in typically caustic fashion: “I know this will come as a shock to you, Mr. Goldwyn, but in all history, which has held billions and billions of human beings, not a single one ever had a happy ending.”
One of my favourite films, Casablanca, doesn't have a happy ending, but it's such a satisfying ending. In the final scene Rick decides that he and Ilsa can't be together, that she needs to stay with Lazlo to help him with his work that is important to the outcome of World War Two.
If Rick and Ilsa had walked off into the sunset together, would that have been a better ending? Is it just me or does it seem more romantic that they subverted their own needs for the needs of mankind?
Apparently, the studio wasn't allowed to show Rick going off with Ilsa anyway, because in those days you weren't allowed to end a film with a man absconding with a married woman. The Motion Picture Production Code, also popularly known as The Hays Code, forbade it.
In this age of post-modernist literature, the concept of an ending at all can seem quite antiquated. But in a genre such as romance, a happy ending is almost mandatory. I read one book blogger opining that she wouldn't even consider reading a book that didn't have a happy ending.
I think I'm suspicious of happy endings because of the fairy tales I read as a child. Most of those ended with "and they lived happily ever after". I quickly got the impression that these endings were divorced from everything that had gone before. "And they lived happily ever after" could be added to nearly every story.
Writing a happy ever after in grown-up books is even harder these days, that's for sure. We live in a more cynical age, and it requires great skill to execute one without it being too cheesy, overly sentimental, or too contrived.
Maybe the perfect ending is one with a foot in both camps — the bittersweet one. Let's ask Rick what he thinks:
"I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that."