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A Tidy Ending

A Novel

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About The Book

“A darkly funny tale with a gloriously sinister twist.” —The Observer (London)

The bestselling author of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep delivers a “compellingly creepy” (The Guardian, UK) novel filled with unexpected twists about mysterious murders in a quiet neighborhood.

Linda has lived in a quiet neighborhood since fleeing the dark events of her childhood in Wales. Now she sits in her kitchen, wondering if this is all there is: pushing the vacuum around and cooking fish sticks for dinner, a far cry from the glamorous lifestyle she sees in the glossy magazines coming through the mail slot addressed to the previous occupant, Rebecca Finch.

Linda’s husband Terry isn’t perfect—he picks his teeth, tracks dirt through the house, and spends most of his time in front of the TV. But that seems fairly normal—until he starts keeping odd hours at work, at around the same time young women start to go missing.

If only Linda could track down and befriend Rebecca, maybe some of that enviable lifestyle would rub off on her and she wouldn’t have to worry about what Terry is up to. But in this “sublimely structured and darkly witty” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) tale, the grass isn’t always greener and you can’t change who you really are. And some secrets can’t stay buried forever…

Excerpt

Now NOW
When people are asked to describe me, they’ll probably say I keep myself to myself.

It’s a silly way of putting it, really, because it makes it sound as if you’ve got something to hide, and I don’t think there’s anything about me that’s interesting enough to be hidden. Not like some. You know what people are like, though, and newspapers always make something out of nothing, even keeping yourself to yourself. It’s what you get for not following the crowd, I suppose. For not joining in. Even if people are pressed a bit harder, they will still find it difficult to dredge up a little anecdote, to pull some distant memory from the back of their minds to single me out. The reporters will want a picture, but they’ll struggle to find one. No, people will say, Linda isn’t in any of those—she was never very big on parties or No, I don’t think Linda was there that day. Then someone will have a brainwave and dig out an old school photograph from the loft, one that’s faded and curled where time has eaten into us all, and they’ll climb down from the stepladder and cough and brush the dust from their clothes, and they’ll say, There she is, look, I’ve found her—she’s the one at the back, and they’ll have to point to make it clear: No, no, that one—the one you can’t see very well.

That would be me. Linda. The one looking down when everyone else is staring straight ahead. The girl you can’t quite remember. The one who kept herself to herself.

Except people forget that keeping yourself to yourself isn’t always a decision you make on your own.

I wonder how Terry would describe me. He’d probably say, She’s Welsh or She’s five foot nine because Terry doesn’t really deal in anything other than facts. He’d have our wedding photograph to show people, of course, although I’d really rather no one else saw that. Even when I dust, I don’t look at it. I’ve never liked pictures of myself and I dislike that one more than any of them. It lives on the mantelpiece, with a carriage clock and a pair of candlesticks that will never find themselves being introduced to any candles. There it waits, trapped in a silver frame, watching me live my life and pointing out all my mistakes. When I do catch sight of myself, stood next to Terry with flowers stuck in my hair, I always think I look surprised. As though I stumbled into the day by accident and didn’t realize I was expected to be the bride. I only put it out because Mother would have something to say if it wasn’t on show.

I’m not really sure how Mother would describe me. All I know is you’d have to find yourself a seat, because she’d definitely take her time over it.

Newspapers will always sniff around, asking their questions, wanting answers and photographs and rummaging in everyone else’s business. It’s started, even now. All those people who walked at the edges of my life over the years have begun to reappear. All those passersby and all those silent voices have suddenly found something they want to say. Everyone is trying very hard to work out who they think I am, which is odd because they were never very interested in who I was before any of this happened. I suppose they want to make sense of it all, and they’ll struggle because no one has all the pieces of the story, except for me. It won’t stop them, though. Poor Linda, they’ll say. She always was soft in the head or Poor Linda, I often thought she was a little bit strange, because we like to cast the heroes and the villains quite early on in a story, and then everyone knows where they are.

Mother’s already had reporters yelling through her letter box.

Give us a quote about your Linda, Mrs. Sykes, they shout. We’ll make it worth your while.

She doesn’t, of course, because as much as Mother enjoys drama, she has always thought of it as more of a spectator sport. The journalists have kept at it, though. Very persistent, they are, standing outside the house all hours of the day and night, ringing the doorbell, climbing garden walls, and knocking on windows. I told her to put some music on really loud and sing along with it so she can’t hear them. That’s what I’ve always done when I want something to go away, ever since I was a child. I don’t know how I would have got through some days without my songs to drown out the world. Terry says I’m forever misunderstanding the lyrics, but he doesn’t realize that there are always two ways to interpret everything in life. All you need to do is pick the version that suits you better. In the end, Mother stuffed the letter box up with a pair of old socks. Now all they get when they shout at her is a mouth full of Marks & Spencer.

There are no letter boxes to shout through here, of course. No garden wall to stand on and no doorbell to ring. All the tiny details, all the quiet, unnoticed edges of the world have been taken away, and it’s only when they’re gone you realize how much you depended on them to make sense of everything else. There are newspapers lying around, but every time I pick one up it has holes in the pages where articles have been removed. Things that might distress people or make them feel uncomfortable. Although one person’s distress is another person’s couldn’t-care-less, so I don’t know how they decide which bits to take out.

“It would be nice,” I said to a woman sitting next to me in the dayroom, “if life was like that. If you could just cut around the pieces you didn’t care for.”

She didn’t reply. Sometimes, they don’t. Sometimes, it’s as though you haven’t spoken at all, as if your world and their world are running quite happily side by side, but there isn’t any way of moving between one and the other.

At least it means there’s no sign of it here. No one knows who I am, because any mention of what happened has been deleted. It’s all been cut away, leaving nice clean margins. I have been disappeared. The only problem is, you try to carry on reading, away from the gap where a story has once been, but—of course—the other side of the page is missing too, so that doesn’t make any sense either.

You can’t take a pair of scissors to one thing and leave the rest undamaged.

It’s impossible.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for A Tidy Ending includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Linda lives a quiet (if unfulfilling) life with her husband, Terry, in a peaceful town—until young women start to go missing. Rumors spread of a serial killer in their midst, and both Linda and her mother, who lives nearby, are reminded of the dark past they left behind in Wales many years ago. . . .

Meanwhile, Terry has been keeping odd hours at work, and his tiresome qualities become more and more grating to Linda. She flips through the glossy catalogs that arrive in the mail for the house’s previous tenant, Rebecca Finch, and imagines that woman’s glamorous lifestyle. If only Linda could become friends with this Rebecca, she’d stop worrying so much about what Terry might be up to.

A sinister but darkly funny tale full of shocking twists, A Tidy Ending asks whether the grass is really greener and if we can ever really know even those closest to us.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. Discuss the character of Linda—what are her personality traits, eccentricities, and obsessions? What did you think of her as a narrator?

2. After perusing the glossy catalogs addressed to Rebecca Finch, Linda begins imagining herself into a different sort of life—a better, more glamorous one like she imagines Rebecca must have. To what extent is this kind of daydreaming harmless—or not? When did you first think Linda had taken it too far? Have you ever experienced this kind of envy?

3. What do we know about the character of Terry? How well does Linda really know him? Did you find him suspicious?

4. Two mysteries unfold simultaneously in the book: the identity of the serial killer, and the truth about Linda’s father. What do we learn about him from Linda’s narration, and what can we guess from context? How does Linda feel about her father, and why?

5. Describe Linda’s relationship with her mother. Why do you think they have stuck together so closely over the years? What was young Linda’s relationship with her father like in comparison?

6. In chapter nine, Linda tells the reader: “whenever you try to run away from your problems, your problems join you for the ride” (page 77). Is this true for these characters?

7. Discuss the presentation of social media in the book. How does it make the characters feel, and how does it impact the events of the story? How does this compare to your own experiences with social media?

8. Compare Linda’s relationship with Rebecca to Rebecca’s relationship with Linda. How do they treat each other? Take advantage of each other? Why?

9. What did you think of the ending? Were you left with unanswered questions, or did you find it “tidy”? During one of the “Now” sections, Dr. Richard asks Linda, “you must have suspected what was going on? . . . When was the point where you put two and two together?” (page 256). Was there a moment earlier in the book where you started to guess what was happening?

10. When did you figure out where the “Now” was taking place? How did what you read in these scenes influence what you thought would happen in the central timeline? Did your understanding of what these scenes were about change as you read on?

11. There are lots of twists, turns, secrets, and small mysteries revealed over the course of the book. Which one, besides the ending, took you most by surprise?

12. Which character(s) in the book did you find most sympathetic? Did your opinion of them change over the course of the novel?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Watch the film Ingrid Goes West (2017), which is about a woman who stalks a social media influencer in order to befriend her. Discuss the parallels between Linda and the film’s title character.

2. Have a taste test of Jaffa Cakes—the chocolate orange snack that is a favorite of Linda’s—along with other British biscuits like McVitie’s Milk Chocolate Digestives and Jammie Dodgers.

3. Read The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon’s novel set in 1976 about two ten-year-old sleuths investigating the mysterious disappearance of a neighbor in their small town. How does that novel compare to A Tidy Ending?

About The Author

Photograph by Philippa Gedge

Joanna Cannon is a psychiatrist with a degree from Leicester Medical School. She lives in England’s Peak District with her family and her dog. She is the author of Three Things About Elsie and The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, a top ten bestseller in the UK.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (August 22, 2023)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982185589

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Raves and Reviews

"At once a case study and an exercise in literary sleight of hand. Ms. Cannon eludes expectations and defies traditions on her way toward a mind-bending double-whammy finale." The Wall Street Journal

"Delicious . . . thoroughly engrossing. . . . This book didn't just stay with me. It stayed and stayed and stayed.” Laurie Hertzel, Minneapolis Star Tribune

"A slow-burn thriller that follows a suburban wife's fascination with a former tenant might lead to frightening revelations about the person she thought she knew best." PopSugar, “Best Books of 2022 So Far”

"A genuinely funny, and moving, novel about a serial killer . . . a curtain-twitching, darkly funny tale with a gloriously sinister twist." —Observer (UK)

"Compellingly creepy, with precisely observed characterisation . . . combines pathos with lovely flashes of humour and a wholly unexpected ending" —The Guardian (UK)

"Cannon’s shrewd characterisation, sparky observations and subtly menacing plot makes this a darkly funny and delightfully sinister read." —Daily Mail (UK)

“Sublimely structured and darkly witty . . . the multilayered plot offers genuine surprises up to the final revelation. Cannon has raised her game with this one.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Cannon’s story is chock-a-block with punch-in-the-gut twists, wry humor, tragedy, and heartbreak. . . . The ending, which will leave readers gasping, is more stunning than ‘tidy.’” —Booklist (starred review)

“I absolutely loved it. A serial killer, a traumatized woman, the quirkiest of characters, such perfect observational writing-- Joanna Cannon is a superstar.” —Sarah Pinborough, author of Behind Her Eyes

“Devastating, deceptive, and darkly funny.” —Sarah Winman, author of Still Life

“A compellingly crafted and compulsive read, full of twists—and twists on twists—that keeps you guessing until the last page. It’s a book that is always at least two steps ahead—though not in the direction you suspect—and deliciously mixes, as only Joanna Cannon can, suburbia and the sinister. A joy and a triumph.” —Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

“Ridiculously good—gripping and creepy and clever and insightful. An absolute masterclass in characterization—Linda is going to stay with me for a very long time. Just as she did with The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Cannon perfectly captures the claustrophobia of suburban life while reminding us how little we really know the people who live behind those lace curtains and neat hedges.” —Marianne Cronin, author of The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot

“Deliciously sinister and irresistibly tense. The creepiest, cleverest, most haunting mystery you will read all year. Absolutely brilliant.” —Rachel Clarke, author of Dear Life

“Original, macabre and the reveal of the twist made me laugh with shock and delight. Never less than intriguing, A Tidy Ending had me holding my breath!” —Marian Keyes, author of Grown Ups

“A highly entertaining thriller with a huge, warm, beating human heart and a central character that stays with you long, long after reading. I loved it.” —Kate Hamer, author of The Girl in the Red Coat

A Tidy Ending is thoroughly absorbing… Cannon carefully unspools this character-driven mystery using the superb storytelling we’ve come to expect from her.” —Olivia Kiernan, author of Too Close to Breathe

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