Warning: if you like to be surprised, stop reading right now. Get a glass of water or look at Buzzfeed or start working on your memoir.
But if you’re curious about these books and their kick-to-the-stomach endings, then by all means, read on. (Because I’m not completely cruel, I’ve whited out the spoilers—just highlight the empty space to see the hidden words.)
Don’t say we didn’t warn you…
Strange But True, by John Searles
Searles’ 2004 novel has a premise just screaming for spoilers: five years after Ronnie Chase died in a prom-night car accident, his girlfriend Melissa—scarred from the crash and living as a recluse in a cabin she rents from former cop Bill Erwin—shows up at the Chase house to inform them that she’s pregnant… and the baby is Ronnie’s. Melissa hasn’t slept with anyone in the five years since Ronnie’s death, and has spent those years wallowing in the tragedy praying for Ronnie’s return, so there’s a certain dream logic to her claim. But the big spoiler is twice as creepy and half as unlikely, as it turns out her landlord, Bill—who has his own horrifying secret life—has been spiking the afternoon wine they’ve been sharing and raping Melissa after she’s passed out. Melissa, deep in denial, thought she was just overdoing the wine and drinking too much—but don’t worry; Bill gets his in the end thanks in part to Ronnie’s depressed, sensitive brother Phillip.
The Sinner, by Petra Hammesfahr
One of the best examples of a “whydunnit” in recent years, German author Hammesfahr’s twisty novel (soon to air as a miniseries on USA starring Jessica Biel) is largely told in flashback after Cora Bender, a seemingly normal mother and housewife, inexplicably stabs a man to death while on a beach picnic with her family. Cora confesses readily and claims to have no idea why she just committed homicide—but a patient policeman thinks there’s more to the story, and slowly susses out the truth—Cora’s younger sister was born extremely ill, and her mother became obsessed with caring for her, forcing her father to share a room with Cora, resulting in a creepily close relationship between the two that comes as close to abuse as possible without crossing that final line. Her sister Magdalena isn’t as innocent as she seems—despite her frailty, she manipulates Cora and also has an intensely, inappropriately intimate relationship with her. When Cora is 19, she takes Magdalena with her to meet a boy and his friends, not realizing that Magdalena is near death and wishes to die. Two of the boys rape Cora while the third has sex with Magdalena—who dies during the act, a specific piece of music playing on the radio. When Cora freaks out, one of the boys hits her in the head with an ashtray, and to cover up the crime, they hold Cora captive for six months. Years later, when the music plays again at the beach, Cora snaps, and strikes out with a knife. (And if you want to know more, we take a deep dive into The Sinner here.)
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
In Ender’s Game, the survival of the human race depends on Ender Wiggin, the child genius recruited for military training by the government… But while you (and Ender) believe he is fighting in mind simulation, in truth, he’s been manipulated into fighting a real war, and actually killing the enemies, called buggers. He moves to a new colony planet with his sister, where he discovers that the buggers have created a space just for him. They didn’t know humans had intelligence, and they want to communicate with him. They show him what the war looked like from their point of view, and Ender and the buggers meet a point of understanding. He vows to live with them in peace, starts a new kind of religion, and writes a Bible-like book about the buggers, signing it Speaker For The Dead, which is a perfect segue into the Ender’s Game sequel.
Atonement, by Ian McEwan
Atonement is about misinterpretation and its repercussions. Briony observes her big sister Cecilia and Cecilia’s friend Robbie flirting and assumes something shameful has happened between them. She accuses Robbie of rape, and Robbie goes to jail. The story then follows Cecilia and Robbie as they go to war, fall in love, and wind up together forever. But at the end of the novel, you discover that Briony is actually the book’s narrator—and she’s been lying to you, too. She did accuse Robbie of rape, and he was jailed, but C & R didn’t live happily ever after together, after all. They both died in the war. Briony just wrote a happy ending for them to atone for her sins. That’s what she says, anyway. I’m not sure I believe anything she says anymore.
And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie
Most Agatha Christie novels leave you gobsmacked (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, anyone?) But And Then There Were None is an absolute masterpiece of the whodunnit? formula. People invited to a party in a mansion keep on being murdered, but by whom? Well, if you’re sure you want to know…it was Judge Wargrave! Swaddled in a red curtain, he fakes his own death so that you, the reader, assume the murderer is someone else. But in a written confession at the end of the novel, you learn that he invited people to a desolate island in order to kill them one by one as punishment for the terrible things they’d done (and thought they got away with). Agatha, you sneak!
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
In Gone Girl, husband and wife Nick and Amy tell the story of their tumultuous marriage. We read what we think is Amy’s diary, and it condemns Nick as a violent jerk. We start to believe that Nick is responsible for Amy’s disappearance and possible death. But in a series of twists, the truth is revealed—Amy and Nick are both liars. Nick was having an affair, and Amy has been alive all along, on the lam, trying to frame Nick for her death. What we thought was her diary is actually a cunning trap: it’s a piece of fiction Amy wrote for the police to find. Amy kills a friend and returns to Nick, pregnant with his child, claiming she was kidnapped. Nick takes her back even though he knows the truth. In the end, Amy says she’s getting ready to become a mom by writing her abduction story. She should hang out with Briony.
Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
Rebecca begins with one of the most mesmerizing first lines in literature—“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Things only get more interesting from there. The unnamed protagonist marries Maxim de Winter and moves into his home, called Manderley. She struggles to live up to the legend of Maxim’s late wife, Rebecca, who was seemingly perfect. Mrs. Danvers, the maid, almost gets the protagonist to kill herself in despair. But one day, divers find a sunken sailboat that belonged to Rebecca, revealing that Rebecca was murdered. Maxim then tells the truth: Rebecca was a wretched woman who had multiple affairs—one, with her cousin, resulted in her pregnancy. When Maxim found out, he killed her. In yet another twist, we find out that Rebecca was lying to Maxim—she wasn’t pregnant, but was actually dying of a terminal illness. In the end Old Danvers burns the joint down and disappears. As for Maxim and the protagonist? Happily ever after.
The Dinner, by Herman Koch
In Howard Koch’s The Dinner, two brothers and their wives sit down for a meal to discuss the horrific crime committed by their sons. The cousins have been caught on camera attacking a sleeping homeless woman in an ATM, throwing trash and a container of gasoline at her, and then burning her to death. Koch makes it clear that the family is bonded by a common sociopathology. The family argues over what to do. Serge, a politician, wants to come clean about the boys’ crime. Enraged by Serge’s stance, his sister-in-law Claire attacks him, disfiguring his face. Claire urges her nephews to “take care” of Beau, Serge and Babette’s adopted son, who witnessed the crime and is blackmailing the boys by threatening to reveal what they did. At the end of the novel, Beau is missing, and one of the cousins comes home covered in blood and mud. Wonder what happened to him?
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hollows, by J.K. Rowling
In J.K. Rowling’s seventh and final installment in the Harry Potter series, it’s revealed that Harry is a Horcrux, and must be killed before Voldemort can be. Viewing Snape’s memories in the Pensieve, Harry sees Snape talking to Dumbledore and finds out that Snape’s been his protector all this time. Snape loved Harry’s mother, Lily Potter, and spent his entire life spying on Voldemort for Dumbledore. Meanwhile, Dumbledore had been steering Harry to sacrifice himself for the larger good. Good and evil are blurred once again when Harry survives and learns that Dumbledore loved him, even if he expected him to sacrifice himself. Ms. Rowling, you’ve tricked us again.
Rant, by Chuck Palahniuk
This novel is an oral biography of protagonist Buster Landru “Rant” Casey, who has died. The reader gathers that Rant lived in a dystopian future where lower class citizens, called “nighttimers,” engaged in an activity called “Party Crashing,” a demolition derby where the crashers slam into each other in cars. The catch: if you crash in the right mental state, you’ll travel backwards in time. Rant disappears during Party Crashing, so his friends assume he’s time traveling. It takes some piecing together to figure out that Rant has been traveling back through time, raping his ancestors every thirteen years in an effort to become a superhuman. He isn’t one character; he is many. You can’t make this stuff up, but I guess Palahniuk did.
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina is about a lot of stuff, but the heart of the story lies with Anna and her downward spiral from captivating spitfire to insecure shell of a woman. The book is beautifully written. Much of its pleasure comes from the character studies and quiet plotting. Then, in one of the most shocking moments in literature, Anna throws herself under a train and dies and you are stupefied. One of my friends always says, of Anna Karenina, “if you only read one ‘old’ book in your whole life, have it be this one.” Agreed.
Something Happened, by Joseph Heller
You’ll spend more than 400 pages reading about not much happening, rolling around in the protagonist’s brain as he goes to work, cares for his son, and fantasizes about the secretary. I can’t tell you what happens, though. That would ruin the book completely.
Kidding, obviously. The whole point, here, is to ruin your enjoyment of surprising books!
Slocum’s son is a weakling because Slocum never made him go to gym class. This son gets hit by a car. In sadness and despair, Slocum hugs him to death. I mean that very literally, not the new kind of “literally.” Slocum hugs his son until he dies from squeezing.
Even with the surprises spoiled, reading these books is still a worthwhile endeavor. You’re going to read all of them, right? What’s the best book twist you’ve ever read?