Book-Talk Monday: Third Time’s a . . . Dud
The stand-alone book is becoming more and more unusual. Readers, and therefore publishers, clamor for series—whether it’s a continuing story series (like my Ransome Trilogy) or a series of books interrelated by theme (Debra White Smith’s contemporary re-tellings of Jane Austen’s novels), setting (Susan May Warren’s Deep Haven series), characters (Dee Henderson’s O’Malley series or my contemporary trilogies), an event (my Great Exhibition series), etc.
Most of us who are avid readers either know when we pick up a book that it’s part of a series, or we’re savvy enough to realize when a certain secondary character is given just a little too much attention that they’re being groomed for a sequel/follow-up book. And, frankly, most of us enjoy that. I love it, both as a reader and as a writer. It’s one of the reasons we get drawn into TV series—we become attached to that setting, those characters, that setup. We like consistency. We’re most comfortable with what we know, and in a series, we get the comfort that comes from knowing.
Another reason we like book series is because an author can use each book in a series to drive it toward a big finale. The ultimate mystery that runs through the series. The final battle. The ultimate happy ending. And it’s the anticipation of that kind of ending that keeps us reading a series.
But what happens when the last book in a series is a big letdown?
Five years ago, I was caught up in Harry Potter mania. I’d pre-ordered my book from B&N and went down and spent the evening at the store so that I could get in line at midnight and get my copy of the book the moment it released (well, about forty-five minutes after the moment it released). I rushed home and stayed up most of the night reading. But I’ll admit—I was nervous. I was afraid of being disappointed in the way that Rowling decided to bring the story and the running conflicts in the series to a satisfying conclusion. But I needn’t have worried. I loved it.
Then, in 2009, before the last season of LOST started, I had that same nervousness. And as the season progressed, my nervousness increased. Not only were they not resolving the previous five seasons’ worth of unresolved conflicts, they introduced a bunch of new ones. When the series finale first aired, I had a huge emotional reaction—but I walked away disappointed because they didn’t end it the way I expected/wanted—with every conflict resolved and every question answered. (I’ve later come to appreciate the closure the finale brings to the character arcs, but it still annoys me that they didn’t bother to actually give the answers to most of the questions they’d strung us along with for several years.)
Now, this year, I’ve read two series—totally different in theme/tone from each other—that left me dissatisfied. No, not just dissatisfied; they left me wanting to hurl the third book across the room. (But I didn’t, since I read one on my Kindle and the other was an audiobook and I was listening to it on my iPad.)
Before the first movie released, I wanted to read The Hunger Games. So I “borrowed” it from Amazon (I’m a Prime member). I devoured it in less than two days. It’s one of the three highest-rated books I’ve read so far this year at 4.5 stars (you can see my star-rating matrix here). A month later, when I was eligible to borrow another Amazon book, I downloaded Catching Fire. While I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the first book (review here), I read this one in less than twelve hours and was still excited to see where the series was going. So the next month rolled around and I borrowed the final book in the series, Mockingjay. Unlike the first two books, which I couldn’t put down, I had to make myself pick this one up to read. I was so disappointed with the change in tone and characterization of the first-person narrator, Katniss, that I actually found myself wishing she’d die and that the POV would switch to Peeta or Gale or even Haymitch. I am looking forward to the film adaptation, though, for the very reason that it can’t do what the book did—camp out inside Katniss’s head and give us nothing but page after page of meandering and repetitious angst.
In July, I started reading another trilogy—this time a general-market romance trilogy. The covers are gorgeous, and I’d read stellar reviews of the first book. I downloaded the audiobooks and got started with the first one—and loved it. (Review here.) So much so that I immediately downloaded and started listening to the second book. It was even better! (Review here.) I found myself looking for excuses to listen to it—even just for a few minutes while warming up dinner in the microwave or instead of actually visually reading something else at bedtime. Then the second book ended on a cliffhanger. And wouldn’t you know, I didn’t have any credits at Audible. As a member, I get a discount on the retail price, but I’m accustomed to using the one credit I get each month to “pay” for my audiobooks. But it ended on a cliffhanger. I needed to know what happened next. So, I made the decision not to wait three weeks until I got my next credit and go ahead and buy the audiobook (since it’s relatively new and not yet available in my public library system). And then it happened again . . . I found myself not enjoying the book I’d so highly anticipated. This one for a different reason (review here).
Is the disappointment in a book greater when it’s the last book in a series that we’ve loved up to that point?
In some situations, I think it is. Had I read the third book of the romance series first, I might have enjoyed it more. (Though one of the problems I had with the book was the fact I didn’t like the hero at all.) Had I picked up Mockingjay as a standalone book and tried to read it, I wouldn’t have forced myself to finish it. It represents everything I don’t like about (a) first-person narrative and (b) teen dystopian fiction.
We obviously have higher expectations for a book when it’s part of a series we already love. We become proprietary. We imagine things working out a certain way. We want to savor the same emotions we’ve felt reading the other books in the series. And when a final book in a series doesn’t live up to our expectations, there’s more of a sense of letdown than when it’s a single-title story that we don’t like quite as much as we expected to.
Does being disappointed with the last book in a series taint how you feel about the whole series afterward?
We all know how important first impressions are—but what is it that folks walk away with? What if you have a fabulous meal somewhere, but then the dessert comes. It looks a mess and the pastry chef accidentally substituted salt for sugar and the cream used was starting to sour. No matter how much water you drink, you can’t quite get rid of that salty, sour taste. What will you remember most about that dining experience? Would you go back to that restaurant? Recommend it to friends?
But what if it’s a restaurant you’ve eaten at multiple times—and you have favorite dishes you order each time—but this dessert was new, so you excitedly decided to try it. Will you go back to that restaurant? Recommend it to friends?
It’s the same for me with series. When every book is out and I read them all straight through and I’m disappointed with the last book, I’m more likely to never pick up any books in the series again to re-read. And I’ll probably be wary of that author in the future. When it’s a series I start reading when it first comes out—or when just a few of the books are out—and I have the opportunity to re-read them (sometimes many times) before the last book releases, I’m much more likely to remember the books in the series that I love rather than focusing on my not-so-great reaction to the last one. It’s easier to write that last one off as a fluke.
What about you? How do you feel when the last book in a series is a disappointment?