Every so often, you read a book that is so good you are devastated to finish it. You might stand there clutching it, wishing it wasn’t over and wondering where the characters have gone. Often that’s because of a great last line, something that makes a book last forever in our minds. Here are our favorites.
Nicole Hill: “But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”—A. A. Milne, The House on Pooh Corner
I was always the kid who liked happy endings. I am now the adult who likes happy endings. I am also the adult who cries when reading the ending of The House on Pooh Corner. As Christopher Robin gently tries to help Pooh cope with his “going away,” he hits a ubiquitous nerve in anyone who has ever said goodbye to anything, anywhere. When you read that last line with its promise of that eternal enchanted place, you hit a jackpot of bittersweet warm and fuzzies.
Ben Van Iten: “The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off.” —Joseph Heller, Catch 22.
In the book’s final glorious moments the story’s main character Yossarian finally breaks free from the concept of Catch-22 (the idea that a soldier cannot plead insanity to escape war, because to want to escape war is sane) and finds freedom even if the world will not recognize it. It’s such a great ending because the reader is all but driven mad by the paradoxical conundrum at this point, and Yossarian’s escape is met with a satisfied exhale.
One of my favorite last lines in recent memory is from Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat, a novel narrated by an incredibly unreliable protagonist. The whole time you’re reading, you’re wondering if she’s a naif or an evil genius. You don’t know which characters you can trust, or who’s manipulating whom, but it feels like if you just analyze the text closely enough, you’ll be able to figure it all out. Then you get to the last line: “If I had not felt so sorry for him, I would have laughed out loud at his desire to pin everything down, at his naiveté, at his childish desire to know.” And you feel like a fool, in the best way possible! Just like the doctor the narrator’s criticizing in this line, you, the reader, are a naïve child looking for a truth that doesn’t exist. The Lifeboat isn’t some dumb mystery novel; it’s about the impossibility of ever knowing why people behave the way they do. Ya burned!
My favorite last line, from Portnoy’s Complaint: “So [said the doctor]. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”
Jenny Grudziecki: “No one watching this woman smear her initials in the steam of her water glass with her first finger, or slip cellophane packets of oyster crackers into her handbag for sea gulls, could know how her thoughts are thronged by our absence, or know how she does not watch, does not listen, does not wait, does not hope, and always for me and Sylvie.” —Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
I love it for two reasons. First, because it’s very long and almost lyrical, and that makes me happy. And second, because it sums up the hopeless expectancy of the novel so perfectly that I can’t imagine a better ending.
Lauren Passell: “There is only one page left in my beautiful blue leather manuscript book; but that is as much as I shall need…. Shall I fill it with ‘I love you, I love you’…? No. Even a broken heart doesn’t warrant a waste of good paper…. A mist is rolling over the fields…. He said he would come back…. Only the margin left to write on now. ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’.” —Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle
Oh my goodness, what a perfect way to end this beautiful coming of age story. I read it the first time when I was a teenager—it struck me hard and it still does. It’s young love, and hopefulness, and despair in exactness. It makes me dream far behind where Dodie Smith finished the story. It also is a tribute to the (wonderful) first line, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink,” which makes the whole thing cycle back, strengthening the idea that (to steal an idea from the last lines of Peter Pan) all this has happened before and it will all happen again.
Josh Sorokach: “Because from now on, for you, I’ll be searching for those moments of always within never. Beauty, in this world.” —Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a splendidly written novel that chronicles the hidden eruditeness, and subsequent friendship, of a concierge, Renée Michel, and the precocious twelve year old, Paloma Josse, who lives in her building. Feeling as though her own destiny is already plotted out and that “life is a farce,” Paloma decides to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. Before her demise, she plans to write down a number of “profound thoughts,” saying that “even if nothing has any meaning, the mind, at least, can give it a shot.” What follows is a highly insightful, engaging tale you won’t want to put down. While the last line offers a beautiful coda, the novel has a litany of thought provoking quotes. “No one seems to have thought of the fact that if life is absurd, being a brilliant success has no greater value than being a failure. It’s just more comfortable.”
What’s the best last line you’ve read?