Adult American novels with happy endings?

Adult American novels with happy endings? September 30, 2015


My teenage daughter is looking for good novels or short stories for a school project. It has to be an American author (per her teacher) and — here’s the hard part — it has to have a happy ending (per her).

My suggestions:

Flannery O’Connor.  Okay, no happy endings, sometimes tragic, but not depressing, anyway! We got a little bit into how the bull in “Greenleaf” is Jesus — well, not Jesus, exactly, but — well, you know how Zeus was always . . . well, you know? (Little kids in the room.) And, see, this old woman put up all these hedges, and she never . . .well . . . (but there were too many little kids in the room). See, it’s not an allegory, or an exact code, but how themes in literature work is . . . what are they teaching you in English, anyway? Go to bed, I’m tired.

Walter M. Miller. I urged Canticle for Leibowitz, but as I sketched out the plot, her glower got heavier and heavier. I was like, “See, history is cyclical, and at least this time around, they have a plan! They survive! You’ll love it, because the Catholics save the day! Well, kind of . . . ”

His short stories are tremendous, though, and should be better known. “Cruxifixus Etiam” is amazing. (collected in The View from the Stars)

James Thurber. Probably actually way way darker than anyone else on this list, if you read closely.

Edith Wharton? She’s great, but yeesh.

I also suggested The Space Merchants by C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl, but it’s so dated, I dunno. Happy ending, pretty much. Literary merit, sure, why not. Weird and funny.

I guess there’s Mark Twain. Do you know I’ve never read Tom Sawyer. Should I? I loved Huckleberry Finn.

Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler? Well, they make me happy.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is pretty good, and comes pretty close to having a happy ending, but the rest of Betty Smith’s books are barely readable. She really shot the wad with the semi-autobiography.

Faulkner? She’s too young, and he doesn’t exactly tend to tie up his endings with a happy bow anyway.
Hemingway? Big fat meh, sorry.
Melville she would hate.
I think she likes Edgar Allen Poe, but they already read a lot of him in class.
Stephen King? Apparently a nice fellow, but why does this man have a literary career?
Henry James doesn’t get to be American.
Robert Penn Warren is another one-hit wonder with All the King’s Men, which I was obsessed with for a while, but now I can’t think why. I read a few other of his novels and couldn’t believe how trashy they were. His novels read like bad poetry, and his poems read like outlines for novels. Feh.

I could make a case for Walker Percy, maybe, but she’s a bit young. Anyway we’re living Love In the Ruins right now, so who needs to read about it?

Who am I forgetting? Help us out! Remember: American, moderately happy ending, some literary merit!

photo credit: Light at the end of the tunnel via photopin (license)

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  • The Eh’theist

    Harper Lee TKaM

    • Ken

      Yes, my favorite! The ending is as wonderful as it is unexpected.

  • Patrick Tramma

    Crazy out of fashion now, but Jack London?

    • Blobee

      Loved Call of the Wild.

    • I just came to say that for “White Fang”. Which is a happy ending for White Fang, anyway. Warning for young readers: animal abuse, and plenty of it.

  • Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksennarion. The Christian allegory ought to just about knock you out of your chair.

    • Darren Jones

      This is one of my favorite series!

    • She is a pretty good writer and did a great job as a mother with an Autism-Spectrum child.

      However she is super intensely Pro-Choice. I didn’t know that until I got in an argument with her online. That doesn’t necessarily make her writing bad, but considering how strong she was with me on it it tends to be on my mind when I see her name.

      • Not too much surprised. She handwaved contraceptives into the pseudomedieval fantasy milieu, with absolutely no suggestion that they ever cause any problems for anyone — probably to justify having mixed-gender military units.

  • 2RC2

    Willa Cather. Define happy ending. The bishop dies in Death Comes for the Archbishop, but after a long and worthy life — and newly canonized Junipero Serra makes a cameo appearance. Also, other Cather works. And yes, you should read Tom Sawyer. I just re-read it. A favorite contemporary work is Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. Definite happy ending.

    • Brian Sullivan

      Plus, Cather and her novels are the answer to most Literature questions on Jeopardy!, if she ever wants to try out….:-)

    • Therese Eby

      I recommend Cather! If Death Comes for the Archbishop sounds too sad, Shadows on the Rock is excellent and has a touch of romance!

      O. Henry is wonderful, sweet, and a touch melancholy.

      Eudora Welty is a beautiful Southern author who does not usually have sad endings. Her short story “Why I live at the P.O.” is very funny.

    • Eileen

      My mother’s two favorite books are O Pioneers! and My Antonia. I read them when I was a teenager to see if I could figure out what makes my mom tick. At the time, I wasn’t impressed by Cather at all, but I may reread the books now to see if I can get some new insights into my mom.

  • Amanda

    O. Henry?

  • ReH

    I would characterize the endings as “cheerful” rather than “happy,” but Cold Sassy Tree, by Olive Ann Burns; A Gathering of Old Men, by Earnest Gaines; and some of the short stories by Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty (I’m thinking specifically of “Holiday” by Porter, which everyone should read). If you go the Walker Percy route, The Second Coming. Unfairly neglected, most unambiguously happy ending of his novels, and much less sex than the Tom More ones. Coincidence that these are all southern novels? I think not.
    Of these and other suggestions I know anything about, Cold Sassy Tree and To Kill a Mockingbird are most likely to be successful for a teenager who doesn’t like depressing books. The 10th graders in my lit class always love the Gaines. Disagree on Willa Cather–while her endings are usually existentially comic, they are almost unrelievedly grim in getting there.

    • SM637

      I don’t know about Cold Sassy Tree–the part where he’s listening in and here’s about his grandpa and grandma was shocking to me, as well as the suicide of the girl’s husband. I’m from the south, and that book left a bad taste in my mouth.

    • Anna

      I’m with you on Cather.

  • CSmith

    I would at categorize this as a satisfying ending rather than happy, but definitely not sad, The Chosen by Chaim Potok

    • Eileen

      Yes! I can’t believe I didn’t think of this one. The Chosen was my very favorite book when I was a kid!

    • Caitlin

      Definitely. Favorite book I read in high school.

  • Laurel

    I second Willa Cather: O Pioneers and Death Comes, esp. Also highly recommend Mark Helprin’s Soldier of the Great War. Imaginative, often humorous story, and happiest ending you could hope for.

  • Anne

    Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock would be perfect. Narrator is a 12 yr old French Canadian girl who ends up happily married. There is a prostitute character but nothing graphic and she is essentially a foil for the narrator’s own very rich and fulfilling home life. Also think about Wendell Berry. Maybe Hannah Coulter.

    • Jen

      Yes, Hannah Coulter is a lovely novel exploring ideas of place, community, hope. Jayber Crow by Berry is also good, but the ending escapes me now. Was it happy? I’m not sure.

  • Kiernan

    Laura Ingalls Wilder, a terrific writer whose reputation has been sentimentalized. She did not sentimentalize her own stories. P.G. Wodehouse took dual citizenship in 1955 and lived most of his life in the U.S. “The Edge of Sadness” by Edwin O’Connor has a happy ending, but takes forever to get there. Soon I hope she can read my own novel, which just might have a fictionalized version of her mother in it.

    • Emily Kimmel

      Laura Ingalls Wilder’s memoir for adults has JUST been published actually, it’s called ‘Pioneer Girl’.

  • Margaret O’Connell

    I love Dorothy Parker; we used some of her short stories in humorous interpretation when I was in high school in the 50’s and they were still being used in the 90’s. I also agree with those who recommended Willa Cather; I think I have read all her books; they are so different that she should find something that interests her.

  • Blobee

    Is it just me, or is having to struggle to come up with authors who have written happy endings, even moderately happy endings, really a sad commentary on modern literature? Hmmm.

    • Rosina Lippi

      The no-pain-no-gain school of creative writing has been holding on for a long time. At MFA programs like Iowa’s, you’d be laughed out of the seminar room if you workshopped a happy ending. They really are stuck on neutral, that whole crowd.

  • Helene

    Love just about any Fannie Flagg book. I just finished reading The All-Girl’s Filling Station Last Reunion.

  • Blobee

    How about the science fiction genre? I used to love reading Ray Bradbury and Issac Asimov stories when I was young, but can’t think of specific titles (it HAS been a long time!) Also, I think Michael Crichton’s, The Andromeda Strain might qualify.
    Fantastic Voyage might qualify as Asimov’s work, but according to Wikipedia he wrote the novelization based on the film version written by a guy named Harry Kleiner. The film came first, then the novel, so I don’t know if it would count.

    • Rebecca Fuentes

      The Martian Chronicles, by Bradbury, are quite good. They’re a collection of short stories or vignettes rather than a novel, but quite beautiful.

    • dasrach

      Thirding Bradbury. For novels, “Something Wicked This Way Comes” is one of my favorites, and “Halloween Tree” is also quite fun.

    • nhjp

      The Door Into Summer by Robert Heinlein has a happy ending, too.

    • Monica

      For scifi I recommend “Starship Troopers,” also by Heinlein. I think the ending is happy? It’s been a while.

  • Anna

    How about “Ella Minnow Pea” by Mark Dunn? Delightful book; I had such high hopes for his second one, “Ibid,” but it turned out lame even though it still makes me happy that there exists a book written entirely in footnotes. Anyway, “Ella Minnow Pea” is a great book for anyone who loves words.
    I’d second O. Henry too.

    • Rebecca Fuentes

      I love Ella Minnow Pea! I’ll second this suggestion.

  • Suzanne

    For some reason I immediately thought of Jubilee Trail. It may be difficult to find and it might be insufficiently literary for a school project, but dang it all it ended happily. It’s a sort of Western, with female main characters who grow in friendship and independence as the book progresses. Florence King recommended it in her article on re-reading:

    Come to that, Florence King’s own novel, When Sisterhood Was in Flower (reprinted in the Florence King Reader), had a happy ending. Probably not suitable for a school project though.

    Maybe something by Peter DeVries? I haven’t read any of his books since I was in high school, 25 or more years ago, but I rememeber laughing some.

  • Dean Koontz, specifically the Odd Thomas novels. Great reads and deeply catholic. Happyish endings….ongoing story

  • dasrach

    For Stephen King, “Lisey’s Story” has quite a bit of literary merit and doesn’t have as much sexual content as most of his book. The ending is also lovely, which doesn’t usually happen with King.

    I ADORED “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern. It has a genuine sense of magic and wonder and is simply a joy to read.

  • Lily B.

    Barbara Kingsolver. I find that most of her works wrap up satisfactorily, but not without some heartache. The Bean Trees and the sequel Pigs in Heaven deal with abuse in a character’s past, adoption. There’s always Poisonwood Bible, but there’s that devastating bit with one of the kids. That one isn’t as happy, but there is definitely some redemption.

  • Leah Joy

    I enjoyed The Night Circus, as someone else suggested: it was remarkable in that the two main characters, who are in love, don’t seek their own happiness at the risk or expense of others. They actually think about the welfare of others! Love doesn’t justify any behavior! I almost died of shock.

    I recommend True Grit by Charles Portis. It’s short and the narrator is a teenage girl.

    I read it recently (I’ve seen the old movie version but not the new one) because some literary person who loved it thinks it’s one of the funniest books ever. I enjoyed it a lot, and find it to be wonderfully well-written, but for the life of me I didn’t see what was so funny. The only thing I could figure is that the dead-serious theological musings, complete with Bible quotations, from the young protagonist amused the reader–but I live in Texas and you can hear people talk just like that in line at the grocery store. Musta been some Yankee critic.

    • Monica

      upvote for True Grit–although the narrator is actually an old lady, looking back on her teenage years (which I think makes it even better)

  • Leah Joy

    And The House of the Seven Gables has a happy ending, and parts of the beginning are very funny–if she can handle Hawthorne’s very 1850s pacing.

  • Julie

    Does it have the be heavy lit? Because Anne Tyler is a wonderful writer and Searching for Caleb has a wonderfully happy ending. Not all of hers do, and her more recent novels are not as good.

  • Lee Hauser

    John Grisham’s “A Painted House.” Semi-autobiographical, much more literary than most of his stuff. Its ending isn’t a riot of cheer and good times, but it’s hopeful, not tragic or twisted. It’s not really my cup of tea, but I had to read it for a writing class and didn’t hate it.

    And you can’t go wrong with “To Kill A Mockingbird,” as mentioned elsewhere.

  • nhjp

    For lighter fare, perhaps “The Secret History of the Pink Carnation” (Lauren Willig) or “Death Comes as Epiphany” by Sharan Newman. (Tip: Peter Abelard and Heloise are recurring characters in Newman’s books. You don’t say how old your daughter is, so I thought I’d point this out in case she’s on the younger side.)

  • Eileen

    How about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos?

    • Eileen

      I’m surprised to see Gentlemen Prefer Blondes didn’t make the cut over at the Register. I still think Chaim Potuk is a master story teller and more worth reading, but I just want to take a second to defend GPB. The book is a farcical look at the Jazz Age and does well juxtaposed with the Great Gatsby. Plus, it’s got lots of themes which can usually get a young woman writing reams in anger and/or amusement.

  • Tonya Scarborough

    Louisa May Alcott

  • antigon

    Franny & Zooey?

  • Clare

    Hmm – how about Mary O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka? It tends to get classified as a children’s novel/pony book so may be unsuitable for this, but it can definitely appeal to adults and the non-horsey. It’s a wonderful story about love and responsibility with a happy ending that is definitely earned – O’Hara doesn’t pull any punches in showing the reality of ranch life, I was pretty traumatised as a child by the description of the horse all tangled up in barbed wire. (Spoiler: she gets better, though not without some heartache on the way.)

  • Jen Doy

    Simcha, a tutor wife from TAC recently had published her first novel which is surpringly good, humorous, great for teenage girls, and Catholic! Check it out… “The Paradise Project” by Suzie Andres. Available at Amazon.

  • Emily Kimmel

    A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain is a good book, also the Prince and the Pauper, also by Mark Twain (it’s about England, but it’s American…go figure). ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is my all time favorite ‘American’ book…not really a happy ending as far as the court case in the center of the book is concerned, but the evil people in it do eventually get their comeuppance. I saw that ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop’ is already mentioned here by several people, I’ll add that to my list of recommendations as well. Just very, very beautifully written. The Bishop dies at the end, but I wouldn’t call it a sad ending.

  • Caitlin

    If she’s looking for something at times poignant and at others fall off the couch funny, I would recommend A Prayer for Owen Meany.

  • D.E.&SuzanneShriver

    Definitely A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. An outlook changing book for me as a teen and still one of my all time favorites.

  • D.F. Powers “Morte D’Urban” is wonderful and has a happy ending. It includes conversion by golf ball. (I can’t explain more without spoilers.)

    Also, Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” is an excellent though difficult book. It also has a happy ending of sorts.

  • ThereseZ

    Edna Ferber, “Fanny Herself.” Hard and sad in the middle but very romantic at the end.
    Actually, I like the whole Edna Ferber series about travelling saleswoman “Emma McChesney.” They are dated, though.
    “My Sister Eileen” is mostly true, so it’s not a novel. It’s by Ruth McKenney. But it reads like sketch comedy and is hilarious and romantic.
    “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay” is another dated true-but-not-a-biography about two young girls who go to Europe. That’s Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimborough.
    (Yes, I’m a very dated reader….)

  • ThereseZ

    “Theophilus North” by Thornton Wilder.
    “Magnificent Obsession” by Lloyd Douglas. Actually, lots of stuff by him.

  • Michael Morley

    Roger Zelazny, A Dark Traveling, a “young adult” version of the author’s “Amber” fantasy/SF series. My older son was tutoring a junior high kid in English composition a few years ago, and his pupil really loved this one.

  • Monica

    Terry Pratchet! Especially the Tiffany Aching Trilogy (The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith). Wintersmith is the worst of the lot, probably because that’s when she starts thinking a lot about boys.

    Oh, and A Room With A View, by E. M. Forster.

    • Rebecca Fuentes

      Pratchett is amazing, but sadly, not American.

      • Monica

        Oh drat. Duh.

  • Sue Korlan

    William Dean Howells, especially the book on the paint business man who needs money and has an easy but immoral way to gain it if he’s willing to do so. Sorry I forgot the title. He also wrote A Hazard of New Fortunes, which gives a good view of 19th century America. I don’t recall how it ends.
    I can’t think of any cheerful James Fenimore Cooper, but The Bravo was interesting although with a very unhappy ending. Or the one that starts with Wall Street burning down I remember liking-but not its name.

  • My Antonia by Willa Cather
    Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (it should count as a happy ending)

  • KarenJo12

    John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” and “Sweet Thursday” are really good.

  • Josh

    Confederacy of Dunces, maybe? It’s been a while and I don’t particularly remember an “ending,” per se. When I read it I also didn’t have the “would this be appropriate for my kids?”-perspective, so I can’t speak to moral content. But Walker Percy’s involvement in its publishing is an imprimatur-of-sorts, right?

  • Susan

    A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole has a happy ending.