The End of the Alphabet

The End of the Alphabet

4.3 6
by C. S. Richardson, CS Richardson

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Ambrose Zephyr is a contented man. He shares a book-laden Victorian house with his loving wife, Zipper. He owns two suits, one of which he was married in. He is a courageous eater, save brussels sprouts. His knowledge of wine is vague and best defined as Napa, good; Australian, better; French, better still. Kir royale is his drink of occasion. For an Englishman he… See more details below


Ambrose Zephyr is a contented man. He shares a book-laden Victorian house with his loving wife, Zipper. He owns two suits, one of which he was married in. He is a courageous eater, save brussels sprouts. His knowledge of wine is vague and best defined as Napa, good; Australian, better; French, better still. Kir royale is his drink of occasion. For an Englishman he makes a poor cup of tea. He believes women are quantifiably wiser than men, and would never give Zipper the slightest reason to mistrust him or question his love. Zipper simply describes Ambrose as the only man she has ever loved. Without adjustment.

Then, just as he is turning fifty, Ambrose is told by his doctor that he has one month to live. Reeling from the news, he and Zipper embark on a whirlwind expedition to the places he has most loved or has always longed to visit, from A to Z, Amsterdam to Zanzibar. As they travel to Italian piazzas, Turkish baths, and other romantic destinations, all beautifully evoked by the author, Zipper struggles to deal with the grand unfairness of their circumstances as she buoys Ambrose with her gentle affection and humor. Meanwhile, Ambrose reflects on his life, one well lived, and comes to understand that death, like life, will be made bearable by the strength and grace of their devotion.

Richardson’s lovely prose comes alive with an honesty and intensity that will leave you breathless and inspired by the simple beauty and power of love. The End of the Alphabet is a timeless, resonant exploration of the nature of love, loss, and life.

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Editorial Reviews

Reeve Lindbergh
Above all else this is a story about love, something longer than the alphabet and wider than geography. Although at first the travel theme may bring to mind such relentless late-life guides as 1000 Places to See Before You Die, the resemblance is superficial. Despite the book's title and some of its chapter headings…this elegant, spare and beautifully written tale of Ambrose Zephyr's last journey is too delicate, witty and passionate to be ruled by alphabetical order or contained within any planned itinerary…The surprise of this little book is not that it is poignant but that it is delightful: graceful, stylish, humorous, intelligent and lacking even the faintest whiff of sanctimony. Each page shimmers with life at its gentle, everyday best: always unraveling at one end of the alphabet or the other, laced with love.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

An abrupt death sentence given to a 50-year-old London ad exec forces an uneasy deliverance in Richardson's smartly setup, poignant tale. Given less than a month to live, Ambrose Zephyr, alphabet-obsessed since childhood, decides to spend out his last days traveling around the globe from A to Z. Ambrose and his wife, Zappora Ashkenazi (the couple is childless), begin in Amsterdam, viewing art by Velázquez and Rembrandt that has been significant to them in their loving marriage, and now looks wholly transformed. The two move between the sweet memories of past love and an unreal present, from Berlin to Chartres, the Great Pyramids of Khufu to Istanbul; when Ambrose begins to falter and they return home to their Kensington terrace flat. Reality and good manners demand that they inform their respective employers and friends of Ambrose's condition, while Zappora, a fashion editor attempting to keep a journal of the couple's last moments together, endures until the end. Richardson's tightly focused tale has panache, shadowed by a brooding suspense. (Aug.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
This slim debut novel distills the essence of life and love, once a British husband and wife learn that he has a month or less to live. Imagine Erich Segal's Love Story rewritten by Nicholson Baker and transplanted to England. The protagonists are sort of an Everycouple, with nothing very exceptional about themselves, their lives or their fate. An advertising man who is creative but not deeply reflective, Ambrose Zephyr learns as he approaches 50 that he has a fatal, incurable and unnamed disease. His wife, Zappora "Zipper" Ashkenazi, who writes about books for a semi-popular fashion magazine, complements him emotionally as well as alphabetically. The two have no children and apparently need nothing beyond each other and their routines to make their lives full. Ambrose's diagnosis seems to hit Zipper harder than it does him. He knows that he must readjust, to deal with "days that until moments before had been assumed would stretch to years. With luck, to decades. Not shrink to weeks." He immediately devises a plan for those dwindling days. Obsessed with the alphabet since childhood, he will use it to plan an itinerary, a letter per day: Amsterdam, Berlin, Chartres. Zipper agrees, anticipating Paris and Venice, yet driven to distraction or denial by her husband's impending death. After the scene-setting, the novel threatens to become a little too rote, a little too alphabetically cute. Yet Richardson's prose is precise and often poetic, devoid of sentimental treacle, and the narrative deepens thematically as the couple discovers that it is as hard to plan neatly for death as it is for life. A climactic twist casts new light on the preceding narrative, and some might be tempted to start thenovel all over again upon finishing. A novel that can be read in a single sitting of less than two hours might continue to resonate with readers for weeks, months, even years.
From the Publisher

The End of the Alphabet is a dazzling exercise in understatement.” —People

“An alphabet of the language of lovers, a beautiful fable of art and mortality: elegant, wise, and humane. I like to think of the happiness this book will bring. I’m sure it will be given as a gift between lovers, and will inspire many journeys—geographical and emotional.” —Chris Cleave, author of Incendiary

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
4.90(w) x 7.51(h) x 0.67(d)

Read an Excerpt

This story is unlikely.

Were it otherwise, or at the least more wished for, it would have begun on a Sunday morning. Early, as that was his best time of the day, and in April, that odd time between a thin winter and a plump spring.

He would have closed the door of his house and stood on his front step, eyeing the predawn sky. He would have given the neighborhood stray a shove from its perch on his window ledge. The scruffy cat would have hissed and bolted across the narrow road to the park across the way. He would have hissed back, proud he had at last defeated the mangy beast, and set off. As he had every Sunday morning as far back as he could remember.

As he walked up the road, the woman from number eighteen would be retrieving the morning paper from her doorstep. The cool morning would have meant she had remembered to throw on a dressing gown. They would have traded pleasant, awkward good mornings. He knew her to be the mother of two energetic children whose names he could never recall. She knew he worked in some sort of creative field. After a moment or two of searching for common ground, he would have asked after her children's artwork. He and his wife had no children of their own.

Farther on, he would have seen the elderly man and his tiny dog, who lived at number twelve, about to begin their morning walk around the park. The pair would be waiting to say hello. The man would have tipped his cap and launched directly into an eccentric opinion about something. The tiny dog would have begun yapping at the neighborhood stray.

He would have worried about disagreeing with the old fellow and causing offense or starting a discussion on a topic he knew nothing about or the soundness of his own opinion. He would have forced an agreeing laugh, wished his neighbor a good day, and eyed the dog with suspicion.

He would have made his way to Kensington High Street and grumbled about the winter that had passed. He would have wished he had taken his wife to Italy. But that would have been expensive or difficult or meant a bad time at the office. He would have sighed to himself, then smiled as the London sky inched from black to gray to yellow to blue.

He would have turned in at Kensington Gardens, up past the palace and on to Broad Walk. Here he would have been happiest. He would have paused near the Round Pond, looked toward the east and the swans, and squinted in his way to watch a girl of perhaps nine or ten, her hair dark and fine and in need of a trim or a ribbon, reading a book beyond her years. He would have closed his eyes in the warmth of a sun just clearing the budding treetops.

He would have checked his watch, counted his minutes and the day’s schedule in his head, and turned for home. He would have retraced his route down the Walk, past the palace, along the High Street, into his road, past number twelve and number eighteen and the cat now back on the window ledge, and through his front door.

His wife would have begun to stir in her sleep. Five minutes more, she would have mumbled, just loud enough for him to hear as he made her tea. As usual, a tepid cup with too much milk.

Ambrose Zephyr would have been content that it was Sunday and that spring had come again to that part of London and that there was no need to go to the office. He would have read a draft of his wife’s latest magazine column and (as gentle readers are obliged) made one or two enthusiastic comments.

He would have wondered about the days ahead of him and, as was his habit, dreamed of doing something else. And there it would have ended.

But that is not this story.


On or about his fiftieth birthday, Ambrose Zephyr failed his annual medical exam. An illness of inexplicable origin with neither known nor foreseeable cure was discovered. It would kill him within the month. Give or take a day.

It was suggested he might want to make arrangements concerning his remaining time.


Ambrose Zephyr lived with his wife—content, quiet, with few extravagances—in a narrow Victorian terrace full of books.

He owned two bespoke suits, one of which he had been married in. The othe—a three–piece linen number with lapelled waistcoat—he wore whenever and wherever he traveled: on business, on the underground, on his Sunday walk. A pocket square, discreetly puffed, always in place. He collected French–cuffed shirts as others might collect souvenir spoons or back issues of National Geographic. He rarely wore ties but liked them as challenges in graphic design. His footwear was predominantly Italian, loaferish, and bought in the sales on Oxford Street. His watches—of which there were many—were a range of silly colors and eccentric shapes.


When cornered, he claimed to read Joyce, Ford, and Conrad. Rereads of Fleming and Wodehouse were a more accurate library. His opinion of Miss Elizabeth Bennet was not favorable (though he liked Mr. B. and held a wary respect for Darcy). Wuthering Heights, according to Ambrose, was the dullest book ever written.

He had not read a newspaper in some time.

Everything Ambrose Zephyr knew about cuisine he learned from his wife. He was allowed in the kitchen, but under no circumstances was he to touch anything. He was a courageous eater, save Brussels sprouts and clams. His knowledge of wine was vague and best defined as Napa good, Australian better, French better still. Kir royale was his drink of occasion. For an Englishman, he made a poor cup of tea.

He believed women to be quantifiably wiser than men. He was neither a breast nor a leg nor an ass man; hair could be any length, any color. Ambrose preferred the complete puzzle to a bit here, a piece there.He stood when someone entered the room. He walked at the street side. Opened his wife’s door first. He could be trusted.


Ambrose Zephyr worked as the creative wallah for Dravot, Carnehan. Ill–mannered competitors termed it the D&C. Messrs. Dravot and Carnehan had long ago divested their interests in the advertising agency to a globalizing media concern. The principals then went off to seek other fortunes and left Ambrose working for a wise and exhausted woman named Greta.

Coworkers considered Ambrose to possess an inventive if journeyman approach to the creative process: on time, on budget, realistic, reasonable. He was neither star nor guru. Ambrose was comfortable with that. A client is in the business of selling something, he often said, but that something is usually not Ambrose Zephyr.

With his heels to the wall Ambrose stood an inch or two under six feet. Excluding the inevitable middle–years droop of waist and waddle, his frame was thinnish. His head, well seasoned, carried the same amount of hair it did when he was a boy. His eyes were creased at the corners and as blue as the day when, fifty years before, a young and sad Queen had come home from Africa.

Those who knew him described Ambrose Zephyr as a better man than some. Wanting a few minor adjustments, they would admit, but didn’t we all. His wife described him as the only man she had loved. Without adjustment.


Indeed, said the doctor. Arrangements.

Ambrose Zephyr suggested, for all in the outer office to hear, that the doctor might want to wait one damn minute before suggesting that Ambrose might want to arrange his remaining days. Days that until moments before had been assumed would stretch to years. With luck, to decades. Not shrink to weeks.

If that, said the doctor.

The room filled with fog. The doctor became a blurry lump behind the desk. The air turned as thick as custard, sauna hot. Ambrose struggled to keep his questions from spilling out with his breakfast in a puddle on the floor.

Something of a mystery, answered the doctor.

Not contagious as far as we can tell.

Fatal? Yes, quite.

Very sure.


Ambrose Zephyr was married to Zappora Ashkenazi, a woman as comfortable in her own skin as anyone else. She had kept her name for the apparent reasons, would have preferred to have been born a Frenchwoman, suffered fools with grace and a smile, loathed insects.

She had decorated the Victorian terrace in tastefully Swedish DIY, updating as budget and wear dictated. She was resigned to the likelihood that a pied–â–terre in the sixth arrondissement might not be in her future. She was content with that.

She wore the best labels she could afford and knew the mysteries that moved a £500 ensemble to the £50 rack. Red and black and white were her colors. Accessorizing she considered well worth the effort, and her earrings were almost always perfect with that outfit. She owned one pair of stilettoed shoes that hurt just to look at. But Ambrose liked them. Which was enough.

She read everything. Russian epics, French confections, American noir, English tabloids had at one time or another taken their place in a wobbly pile beside the bed. Nonfiction was too much like school, she said. Experimental literature left her cold and annoyed and despairing for the so–called modern craft. She had lost count of how many times she had read Wuthering Heights.

She could walk into a kitchen she had never seen before and—without a recipe—plate a meal worthy of a starred review in half the time it took her husband to find an egg to boil. Her kitchen was full of cookery books that had never felt the splash of an errant sauce. She read them, she displayed them; they felt good in hand. They completed the room. Like earrings.

Men brought out her best and made her laugh. She liked most beards, hated all mustaches, and furrowed her brow at the mention of tattoos. Height and weight and size didn’t matter. Manners and nice shoes mattered. Doing the better thing mattered.

Her shoulder was ready when friends felt a cry coming on. She knew where to offer opinion and when to shut up. She could juggle oranges. She lied only a little, and they were always white.


Zappora Ashkenazi was the literary editor for the country's third-most-read fashion magazine. Her publisher had wanted to introduce the magazine's reluctant readership to both new and classic literature, and if that literature held a passing link to couture, so much the better. It was a job with challenge: Austen, Woolf, and Parker had never, so far as Zappora knew, assembled a spring collection. Yet those who read “On the Nightstand” every month did so faithfully and first. Her writing was known for its economic style and refreshing avoidance of simile. Her husband was her first reader. Every word, every draft. You always have an interesting story to tell, he would say.

Zappora started in the fashion trade as a photographer’s dresser. She flipped collars, fanned skirts, hitched pants, buttoned, tied, zipped. By the end of the first hour with her first model on her first day of her first real job she was given her first nickname.


She was very proud.

Zipper was not quite as tall as her husband, not quite as thin, and not quite as old. Her hair was dark and fine and trimmed precisely every eight weeks. Colored, perhaps tied with a ribbon, as required.

Her eyes were creased at the corners. She wore glasses when reading. The glasses were purchased in a small shop in Paris, around the corner from an antiquarian bookshop.

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