Who of us doesn’t love a story with a “Wow-I-didn’t-see-that-coming” ending? (Where The Crawdads Sing, anyone?) I remember when I saw Sixth Sense in theaters oh-so-long ago, I was so gobsmacked by the shocker of an ending that I couldn’t wait for the movie to come out on DVD so that I could watch it again, multiple times actually, to see how it was executed so believably. The surprise ending is not an easy story element to pull off so I admire any writer who can do it successfully with every book she or he writes. So, whether you need a break from the monotony of what seems like an endless pandemic or just a fun reading ride because all the amusement parks are closed, here’s a spoiler-free list of great novels with twisty endings to dazzle and delight you.
Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult
I listened to this as an audiobook from my library not knowing anything about it at all when I checked it out. It was just a Jodi Picoult book I hadn’t read yet, and it was also about elephants — animals I’ve always had a tender spot for (giraffes, too, by the way!). In this novel, teenage Jenna has been searching for her mother — who disappeared from her hospital bed after having been left for dead on the grounds of an elephant sanctuary — for ten years. When Jenna decides to seek help from a psychic, things get very interesting very fast. That’s all I can say, except plan to read or listen to it twice.
This one is always on my list of favorite books when someone asks for such a thing. It is a Gothic, dual-timeline page-turner about families and their secrets; a novel that I’ve read three times already, and now I want to read it again, even though I know everything — all the twists, all the turns. And because this paragraph from the publisher’s description of the book is so eloquent, I give it to you here: “The Thirteenth Tale is a love letter to reading, a book for the feral reader in all of us, a return to that rich vein of storytelling that our parents loved and that we loved as children. Diane Setterfield will keep you guessing, make you wonder, move you to tears and laughter and, in the end, deposit you breathless yet satisfied back upon the shore of your everyday life.” So buy it already (from your favorite indie bookstore).
This novel by friend and fellow Tall Poppy Writer Jessica Strawser has a significant twist at the end in that we find out the main, point-of-view character has been keeping a secret the whole time. A big one. It’s the tale of some neighborhood women who like to swap laughs and stories over the fences in their cozy residential area, but then one Monday morning, one of them winds up missing. The revealed secret at the end “changes the tenor of the story enough that readers often tell me they wanted to go straight back and re-read the whole thing,” Jessica says. A true sign of a knock-your-socks-off ending!
I listened to this on audio, and I loved the narration so much and was so swept up in the story I would classify it as a compelling page-turner even though I turned no pages. Here, a criminal psychotherapist named Theo has waited a long time for the opportunity to work with Alicia, a famous artist who, after committing a violent crime, stops speaking. He’s determined to get her to talk and untangle the mystery of why she shot her husband. Don’t read any reviews of this one, just don’t. Some people, bless their little hearts, don’t know how to write a review without giving the surprise ending away. And you want the surprise ending with this one. Trust me.
Another fellow Tall Poppy pal of mine, Kelly Simmons’ One More Day has a revelation waiting for you at the end that you likely won’t see coming. When she turns her back to pay a parking meter, Carrie becomes the devastated mother of a missing child who longs every day thereafter for her son’s return. When he finally does return after a year of hoping, it’s only for twenty-four hours. And then he’s gone again. Rumors begin to spread about Carrie, among them that she’s seeing things. Worse, her alibi doesn’t quite add up. Kelly calls this one, “Women’s fiction with suspense and magical realism elements.” NYT bestselling author Caroline Leavitt calls it “absolutely mesmerizing.”
I have a saying that goes like this: “If Kate Morton writes a book, I am going to buy it.” I’ve read everything she’s written and have no plans to stop. Her novels are expertly envisioned, her prose exquisite and her characters unforgettable. The Secret Keeper is one of my favorites of hers. At an event at the family farm in the English countryside, 16-year-old Laurel witnesses a shocking crime that challenges everything she knows about her beloved mother. Fifty years later, Laurel and her sisters are meeting at the farm to celebrate their mother’s ninetieth birthday and Laurel realizes that this is her last chance to discover the truth about that long-ago day. And so the quest begins. Of this one Kate’s publisher says: “A gripping story of deception and passion, The Secret Keeper will keep you enthralled to the last page.” I concur.
We started with a Picoult so let’s end with one. My Sister’s Keeper is one of those books whose ending you just love or just despise. In fact, readers are so polarized that when it was adapted for the screen, the screenwriters — get ready for it — changed the ending. They changed it! Yikes. I am in the camp that says Jodi knew she what she was doing when she wrote this novel. Yes, the ending is a shocker. Yes, it’s not what you expect. Yes, you might have preferred it if things had been wrapped up differently, but I for one think it took a lot of moxie and guts to write an ending like this; one that readers didn’t expect. Skip the reviews on this one, too, until you’ve read it. Then by all means join the debate. My guess is it’s still raging. In a nutshell, it’s a story about a couple who decide to have another baby when their much-loved daughter is diagnosed with leukemia — for the purpose of using that other child for a bone marrow transplant.
Susan Meissner is a USA Today bestselling novelist with more than a half million books in print in fifteen languages. Her novels include The Last Year of the War, a Library Reads and Real Simple top pick, and As Bright as Heaven, which received a starred review from Library Journal. She’s happy to tell you that her forthcoming novel, The Nature of Fragile Things (Berkley, Feb 2, 2021) has a twisty surprise ending that was deliciously fun to write. Learn more about Susan on her website.