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Our Endless Numbered Days

December 6, 2016

Oh how I wish someone had “spoiled” Claire Fuller’s novel Our Endless Numbered Days for me! It is well written and interesting enough to keep a person reading, but I was immensely disappointed by the ending.

The story of how Peggy and her father go off to live in the wilderness is exciting, what with their bursts of enthusiasm for odd, impractical projects and the difficulty they have learning to feed themselves. Peggy, who is only eight years old at the beginning of the book, insists that her father call her “Rapunzel” which is soon shortened to “Punzel.” He tells her that her mother is dead, and that everyone in the rest of the world has died too, that they are the only people left.

The little girl learns wilderness skills, like how to snare and skin a squirrel, and she eventually learns to split wood. Some of this is not without its gory aspect, and a few of the early scenes put me off a bit. One of these is the fishing episode where her father tells her a story to illustrate his point, that it is:
“important to always look behind before you cast because on that trip he had caught his father’s eyebrow with the hook as he flicked the line over his shoulder. The barb had gone in above the eye, emerging from a fold in the lid….My grandpa had made my father cut through the skin of his eyelid with the fish-gutting knife to remove the hook.”
I should have been warned by stories like this, but I didn’t heed the warning.

I persisted in thinking that this was a survival story. The parts about how they were starving during their first winter were balm for my dieting soul during this pre-holiday season full of recipes. I especially liked this description:
“Hunger flowed over me in waves; bedtime was the worst, when I would feel that my stomach was devouring itself from the inside and I would sit up in bed, holding my cramping muscles, looking around the cabin for something I could eat.”

In the end, however, this is not a survival story. Punzel is with her increasingly crazy father in the wilderness for nine years, until she turns seventeen. Perhaps the spoiler is obvious to you from this bare outline of the plot. It did not occur to me that this single point was going to be the only point of the book; I kept thinking that the book was going to be about something other than the obvious. But no. Here it is, the big secret of this book: Punzel kills her father, walks out of the wilderness, gets back to her mother, and is revealed to be pregnant by the only man she’s ever known.

I don’t know about you, but I call that a disappointment. It’s like I read a whole book when I could have just been told “the moral of the story.”

Well, if you’ve read this far, now you know. Save yourself the few pleasures of this story, which come to nothing, in the end. No one is changed by how Punzel managed to survive, both mentally and physically. She goes back to London and conventional life, where they call her “Peggy” again and she safety-pins a skirt around her waist in preparation for shocking her friends and family.

Have you ever spent hours of your life on a story that fell apart at the end? It’s not just about the moral–at the very end of the credits for the movie Dr. Strange, there’s a warning about not “driving while distracted,” which is kind of funny in its understatement. But the moral of Our Endless Numbered Days is massively reductive, especially in light of that wonderfully paradoxical title.


15 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2016 11:44 am

    Oh brother. How….typical. I’m pretty sure I’ve read lots of disappointing books but I can’t think of one off the top of my head. Too bad this didn’t have the kind of twist that the movie 10 Cloverfield Lane had.

    • December 8, 2016 9:27 am

      This one tries to have a twist, but it’s pretty transparent. If the twist had involved some kind of new understanding, that would have been one thing, but it merely covers up the girl’s desperation, making it possible for her family and friends to see her as the same person who went away.

  2. December 6, 2016 1:14 pm

    This is where I always lose my temper with Jodi Picoult, who should write much better books than she always does: she just can’t resist annoying endings. My Sister’s Keeper’s ending made !e throw the book across the room.

  3. December 6, 2016 1:15 pm

    *made me throw

    • December 8, 2016 9:20 am

      I’m tickled to hear that another reader occasionally throws a book across the room! And I agree that Jodi Picoult would make a person do it–I read a number of her books a few years ago, and found them immensely readable, compelling, focused on contemporary issues, and utterly unsatisfying at actually saying anything useful about those issues.
      It’s not that I think fiction must have a use, but that she sets the book up to say something useful and then she DOESN’T SAY IT.

  4. December 6, 2016 1:47 pm

    Oooo man… But I am like you. Sometimes a bit naive. Or, because I can NEVER see the ending like everyone else, in the off chance I do, I never believe what I am thinking. And in a situation like this, I would be sad such a well-known writer couldn’t come up with something more original.

    • December 8, 2016 9:31 am

      Yeah, despite saying it’s transparent (which it totally is) the twist had me hoping that something more interesting was going to happen. There was a scene with potential, where the person the girl had made up didn’t appear, and I thought we would all have a realization. But no.

  5. December 8, 2016 10:25 am

    Ugh. I’d be disappointed by that one too. How much more cliche can you get?

    • December 8, 2016 11:16 am

      Don’t get me started. The mother was a once-famous pianist, and he took their child while she was off playing a concert tour, so on the scale of cliche notes, I’d say this author hit 7/7.

  6. the other theo permalink
    December 8, 2016 12:12 pm

    When I first saw the title of your post, I thought “Is she writing about the lovely sophomore album by Iron & Wine?” Alas, no. It’s just what sounds to be a depressing novel with one trick up its sleeve. Rats.

  7. buriedinprint permalink
    December 14, 2016 9:26 am

    Although I wasn’t disappointed in the same way that you were, I did believe it was going to be more of a traditional survival story (like Hatchet or Swiss Family Robinson or something, I guess). Of course it still IS a survival story, right? She is a survivor. I’m curious to see what her next novel is like.

    • December 14, 2016 9:30 am

      It is about her survival, so part of the reason I didn’t like the ending is that it doesn’t seem that her mother and brother understand what she had to do to survive. They react in what seemed to me very conventional ways.

  8. Jenny permalink
    December 19, 2016 8:47 pm

    Is it a Rapunzel story, though? The father keeping her in the tower? The escape? Did the pianist mother have a craving for greens (ambitious greens?) Does a prince rescue her? Does he go blind? It’s not more forgivable if it doesn’t do anything new with the story, but maybe it’s a little more interesting. (At least, to me. I like retellings of fairy tales.)

    • December 20, 2016 10:17 am

      I love fairy tale retellings too; I feel like we’ve bonded over this before. But no, this one is not a Rapunzel story except for the girl’s name. There’s no tower because the kid thinks there are no other people in the world, the mother is not particularly ambitious (just tired of being married to the father), there is a kind of prince, but he doesn’t go blind or pay any kind of penalty. There’s a secret about the prince, but it’s not enough to carry the whole story.

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