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The End of the Alphabet

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Ambrose Zephyr and his wife Zappora Ashkenazi (“Zipper”) have achieved a happy and balanced life together. She is the yin to his yang. He is the only man she has loved without adjustment. The two live contentedly in a narrow London terrace full of books.

That contentment is thrown into turmoil on or about Ambrose’s fiftieth birthday, when they receive the news that he has contracted a mysterious illness that will most certainly lead to his death within the month. In panicked delirium, from beneath their bed Ambrose withdraws an oxblood suitcase containing the ephemera of his long-suppressed life’s to travel the world in a pilgrimage through the alphabet, from Amsterdam to Zanzibar.

Scuttling the responsibilities of their respectably successful careers, the two set off on an urgent voyage through real and imagined geographies of place, of history, of art, and of love.

Zipper is continually frustrated by Ambrose’s reticence, but loves him beyond all measure. And Ambrose well appreciates his miraculous good fortune in having Zipper by his side, drawing out the best in him. Zipper does not completely understand Ambrose’s compulsion to pursue his childhood dream, but her commitment to him is absolute and so she, too, is compelled to make this journey.

In Amsterdam, they revisit past debates on beauty and art. In Berlin, they weigh the burdens of history. In the glow of the Chartres windows, they explore the stations of life. In Deauville, they fondly recall their youthful love. At “E,” Ambrose adjusts his long-drafted itinerary, crossing out Elba and replacing it with the Eiffel Tower of Zipper’s beloved Paris, the city of their first predestined encounter. While resting in Florence beside the youthfully vital David, they meet a chivalrous old man who shares his insight into enduring romance. It is in Giza that Ambrose begins to falter as he climbs a pyramid, and they miss Haifa thanks to a sandstorm. In Istanbul, they realize that Ambrose can go no further and they must return to their London terrace.

But their voyage is not over. The two continue their odyssey, no longer via plane and rail, but now through the power of shared desire and love. The wise words of a hallucinatory camel in Ambrose’s fevered dream ring out to them with “Why, you ask? There is no why, Master Zephyr. Life goes on. Death goes on. Love goes on. It is all as simple as that.”

In the tradition of romantic legend and fable, The End of the Alphabet is a lovingly rendered, richly nuanced treatise on the nature of true and enduring love. The story of Ambrose and Zappora is a precious gift, one that illuminates a pathway to the return of balance and joy after unthinkable loss.

From the Hardcover edition.

160 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2007

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About the author

C.S. Richardson

3 books43 followers
CS Richardson’s first novel, The End of the Alphabet, was an international bestseller published in thirteen countries and ten languages. Winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Canada & the Caribbean), it was named on four Best of the Year lists and was adapted for radio drama by BBC Radio 4.

Richardson is also an accomplished and award-winning book designer. He lives and works in Toronto and is currently the Vice President and Creative Director at Random House Canada.

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5 stars
547 (19%)
4 stars
889 (31%)
3 stars
961 (33%)
2 stars
367 (12%)
1 star
101 (3%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 588 reviews
Profile Image for Baba.
3,559 reviews850 followers
November 13, 2022
The story of the last days of a long lasting romance; after the husband has been diagnosed with an illness giving him 30 days to live, he decides to take his wife on their last adventure. A bit disjointed, so difficult to really get into. A strong One Star, 3 out of 12. This book has won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best first Book, so maybe just ignore me?

2012 read
Profile Image for Bonnie.
169 reviews286 followers
May 25, 2009
Winner 2008 Commonwealth Writer Prize for Best First Novel

I have read this book twice, each time in less than two hours; at 20K words this is probably more properly a novella, not a novel. But it’s a gem of a little book: C S Richardson’s tale is a tender and poignant portrayal of a couple very much in love, and how they differ in their reaction to inevitable loss.

At about age fifty, Ambrose Zephyr is informed quite matter-of-factly, that he has thirty days “give or take” to live. His doctor speaks quite blithely: Something of a mystery [we never learn what he has:]. Fatal? Yes, quite; Yes, the doctor offered, unfair would be a very good word about now. [Quotation marks are not used in the story.:]

Ambrose’s wife, Zappora Ashkanasi, known as Zipper, who had kept her last name “for the apparent reasons”, definitely believes it’s unfair, and can’t imagine life without Ambrose, the only man she has ever loved. Without adjustment. So when Ambrose decides they must take a whirlwind trip to all his favourite places, and to places he’s always wished to see, from A (Amsterdam) to Z (Zanzibar), the two – A.Z. and Z.A. – leave without informing friends or employers. (Childless, they have devoted themselves to one another and their careers.)

Richardson zigzags between the present and the past as Ambrose and Zipper zip from place to place. But en route to Elba, Zipper wants to hop off the train at Paris. She’s not tired of Paris. They had met in Paris. Thus the Eiffel Tower substitutes for Elba. Zipper awakens slightly disoriented, then recalls where they are, and where Ambrose must be: on his stroll. And she knows, by the time she sets out, exactly where on his stroll he will be. When she gets there, she sits down beside him:
You smell like cigarettes, she said. How was the walk?
Ambrose lied. Lovely, he said. Zipper caught sight of his slowly trembling hands, the subtle curling and uncurling of fingers.
How was your lie-in? he said. Feel better?
Zipper lied.

They miss connections to Haifa, and go on to Istanbul, where the “niceties” begin to disappear. Ambrose snaps at Zipper when she asks if there’s anything she can do. She wants to throw something at him when he wants to be left alone. Later, after emerging from a Turkish bath, Zipper’s exasperation with her husband’s “absence” reaches a peak. She pushes until he admits to being afraid, but so what? And, he adds, this isn’t happening to her.
Zipper: You selfish, shitty bastard. This is happening to me.
Ambrose: Really? In less than a month, you’ll still be alive.
Zipper: Really. I can hardly wait.

I leave the rest of this conversation for you; suffice it to say that that we are now not far from Home, and the end of our fable.

It’s interesting: at first I thought the whole concept of the alphabet, from characters’ names, to the travel from A to Z, to the title (to say nothing of chapter titles!) was just a bit too much – until I discovered it was the editorial staff at Random House that came up with the title. The author’s working title was The Grand Tour of Ambrose Zephyr; had that been left intact, the ending would not have been as effective. Richardson wrote a good story, and the title makes it even better.

Profile Image for notgettingenough .
1,026 reviews1,180 followers
July 30, 2012
If you wish to fill a couple of hours of your life with a nicely written weepie, this is for you. Is it a novella? It is 140 small pages, large margins, double-spaced text. I've certainly read lots of 'short stories' this length.

It does consider a dilemma I've often wondered about. There are those quick deaths - one moment you are vacuuming or cooking dinner, next moment finito la musica. Death displaces life and you scarcely even have time to register it. There are the long ones, where you know for years what is going to happen and death simply becomes part of life, which goes on much as it had before.

Then there is finding out you have one month give or take, as the doctor says to Ambrose. I tried to make this sound better: 40,320 minutes. What do you do then? It makes me weep just thinking about it. Again. I had a friend to whom this happened. We were on the phone, we asked him to dinner, he said he couldn't for precisely that reason. He had 30 days, that was his news. There were so many things for which there was no longer time. We did see him for a coffee visit one morning during that 30 days, but in retrospect I feel terribly guilty about having taken that time from him, we just weren't important enough in his life to have justified 60 of those 40,320 minutes. Maybe, since you very devoutly believed in God despite this shitty situation, you will be reading this and if so, accept my apology, Richard.

This is Ambrose's account of those thirty days he discovered he had left. Completely different from my friend Richard's. Just as heart-breaking.

Profile Image for Elizabeth (Alaska).
1,285 reviews418 followers
April 10, 2017
At first I thought this was a "cute" book. Its prose is completely unpretentious as are the characters. The presentation is unusual. One very short chapter that is only a paragraph long. Another is one long run on sentence, which fits in context. The underlying story, however, is anything but "cute". A man and his wife must face his impending death. He decides to do it by seeing the world alphabetically. 26 letters, 30 days more or less.

Sometimes a book happens when it is most personally meaningful because of other things taking place in your life at that moment in time. Six weeks ago, my daughter lost her significant other of twenty years. It has made all of us acutely aware of the impermanence of life. In this book, it is the husband who is dying, and the wife left behind. She is at sea. I am the wife, my daughter was in reality the wife, and so, of course, I identified.

I had already marked another by this author as Wish List. I look forward to it.
Profile Image for Frank.
48 reviews20 followers
May 11, 2016
OK - this one was a guilty pleasure. I stumbled across the title in one of my wife's magazines that I explore for feminine insight from time to time. The title struck me, then the brief but very favorable review pulled me in.

This this a short novel - in size and pages - that can be read in an afternoon. The story could likely have been told in 600 pages, but one of the great charms here is the brevity, and the roller coaster within it.

Ambrose and his wife Zipper are hit with some horrible news in the first few pages, and then embark of a alphabetical journey through their past, leaving behind a home, jobs, and hospitals.

The novel takes us through the bitterness of suffering, but at the same time the peacefulness letting go, and holding on only to what is most important, and letting everything else go. And letting go comes from both perspectives, the one going, and the one staying behind.

There is really no effort in the story to give the reader hope of a happy ending, but after the journey, I'm not sure I wanted that kind of an ending.

What I got in the end was bittersweet and beautiful.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Nadine Larter.
Author 1 book287 followers
July 20, 2011
I must admit that I particularly love books like this one. It’s so lovingly odd – almost like the author was told about these things called books and he then decided he’d try writing one. Don’t take that statement as insulting though. The End of the Alphabet is kind of refreshingly without pretention or strict structure. It reads like someone sat down and wrote something. Just because. Which is often the best kind of writing.

Ambrose Zephyr has only thirty days to live, and he has decided to spend them travelling with his wife. Short, sweet, and to the point, The End of the Alphabet takes you through Ambrose’s diagnoses to his death without any flair or overtly emotional sentiment, but somehow the simplicity of the entire story allows you to fill in your own emotional blanks. I imagine this tactic might not work for everyone, but CS Richardson certainly owns the style with flair.

Should you read it? Yes. Especially if you’re a busy person and would like something you could get through in an afternoon. Richardson is Lemoney Snickett without the quirk.
Profile Image for Jane.
820 reviews613 followers
December 9, 2010
The End of the Alphabet is what I would call a huggable book.

Ambrose Zephyr is a fifty year old, happily married Londoner. But then he is diagnosed with an unidentified terminal illness and given only a month to live.

Ambrose that he must to seize the day. And so, accompanied by his wife Zappora Ashkenazi (also known as Zipper) he sets off on a journey round the world, visiting each city on his list in alphabetical order.

Each stop evokes different memories, different emotions for Ambrose and Zipper. And each must learn to cope with Ambrose’s illness in their own way.

The chapters grow shorter as time runs out, and events take an unexpected turn before a sudden conclusion that is, sadly, inevitable.

Ambrose’s story is both quirky and charming. That together with the alphabetical conceit could have been too much, but it works because those elements are balanced with very real emotions.

A wealth of tiny details, the little things that couples know about each other, bring Ambrose and Zipper. And all of the important things ring true.

An ordinary couple made special by their love for each other. True magic!

I was devastated for Zipper when she lost her husband, but I could smile too when I thought of her and Ambrose together.

A bittersweet delight.

Profile Image for Edwina Callan.
1,621 reviews47 followers
April 14, 2014
I guess this book proves that no two people ever read the same book.
I started reading this back in Feb. but after 3 or 4 pages, I'd have to lay it aside or fall asleep. I finally forced myself to finish it today.
At 119 pages, this book shouldn't take more than a couple of hours to read, but it is so slow paced and boring and the characters are just so silly that I feel like it was a waste of paper to even print this rubbish.
Also, this is the first book I've ever read where the main character is dying and I could have cared less and I would have helped him along if I could have, just so this horrible book would finally come to an end.
Profile Image for Amber.
991 reviews
June 9, 2016
When Ambrose Zephyr finds out he only has one month to live from his doctor, he takes his wife Zipper to places he had wanted to see before he dies on a list from A through Z. Will his wife stand for it though? Read on and find out for yourself.

This was a pretty good and sad read about living life to the fullest and cherishing it every day. Definitely check this book out at your local library and wherever books are sold.
Profile Image for Alan.
Author 11 books160 followers
September 20, 2012
picked this up from the library today

wasn't keen. Thought about giving it two stars because it's far too whimsical for me. For example half way through the bloke - who's dying - can suddenly see across seas (eg Engalnd from France, even the USA from Cornwall) and into the past (when visiting the pyramids sees ancient egyptians at work on them). It's not believable but maybe it's not supposed to be. However that ruins the impact of his dying. Straight after I started reading Kyle Minor's book of stories and the first two were also about someone dying, concentrating on very real details like the son having to undress his mother and the over specificity of a dying woman's ice cream request of her husband. Those stories really hit me hard like punches to the nose. This slight novel never landed one.

So 2 and a half.
Profile Image for viv megenhardt.
36 reviews1 follower
October 10, 2022
Simple and beautiful and gut wrenching. This is what they both die at the end wishes it was. Wasn’t expecting to cry, but you’ll never guess what happened. Cried my body weight.
85 reviews
January 13, 2008
I loved this book. Let me start by saying, this is not my typical book. I love long, perferably multi volume books, where as this is short (114 pages), most of the chapters are less than a page and most of the sentences are not even complete. I picked up this book because of the cover. I was dawn in by the simple drawing of two camels and a palm tree. I even put back a book I have been wanting to read for months in order to buy this one.

I think the mark of a good book is whether or not it evokes an emotional response and this tiny book did just that. The story centers on Ambrose Zephyr, who has been told he has a month to live, and his wife Zipper Ashkenazi. He has a long standing obsession with letters and travel and quickly forms a list, from A to Z, of all the places he will travel in the time he has left. My heart broke when he had to return home after I (and skipping E and H). Ambrose's calm as he faced the end and Zipper's internal strength were compelling. This little book told a much deeper story than the majority of books that are 6 times it's size.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
1,520 reviews51 followers
January 11, 2017
This debut novel from a Canadian author had an interesting premise, a touching story, and fairly likable characters. There wasn't a whole lot that I didn't like about it, but I found the End of the Alphabet a bit difficult for me to love.

The writing style was mostly easy to read and straightforward, which was nice. I didn't particularly enjoy the lack of quotation marks for conversation, but that seems a bit trivial to complain about. It was a sad little story that had genuine emotion without feeling too sad. I liked the idea of traveling the world when being given a death sentence of an illness, and I felt like it fell apart fairly realistically. It felt a bit like stuff I have previously read from Mitch Albom.

Mostly, The End of the Alphabet was a decent book that would not be my typical fare. I didn't really expect it to be when I found it on the shelf, so I guess I got what I anticipated. A good story, but not the kind I would typically prefer. If the book description suits your tastes, you will probably enjoy it.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,732 reviews14.1k followers
July 27, 2013
Ambrose and Zipper, married had made the decision to never have children, their careers and their relationship would be enough. Now in their fifties, Ambrose has just received the diagnosis that in a month or less he will be dead. It is never exactly said what his symptoms were nor what he had, just the news that he would be dead. What he has is besides the point, what the book is about is how they both react to the news and what they do. How they re-evaluate where they have been while they try to fill the days with as much travel as they can. Poignant, without being syrupy, this is a story about a relationship and the A in Ambrose to the Z in Zipper; what this actually meant. Different type of story, and different type of writing.
Profile Image for Bev.
2,897 reviews258 followers
May 7, 2023
Review from 2009:

I love this book. A quick read..but so much crammed into a small volume. I've read it and now, as with all the books I truly love, it's now my aim to own it.

Mission accomplished! I now own it in the hardback version pictured here.

Review from 9/10/13:

The End of the Alphabet by C. S. Richardson is a gorgeous gem of a book. I originally read this back in 2009 and am glad that the 2013 Bingo Reading Challenge gave me a reason to reread. It's a book that I find myself recommending over and over again--especially to those who I know are not much into mysteries (my first literary love).

The story is pretty straightforward. At about the age of fifty Ambrose Zephyr is diagnosed with an unspecified, terminal disease. His doctor gives him a month (or thereabouts) to live. Ambrose has always had a fascination with alphabets and travel. When he was growing up, he would write to embassies and consulates requesting brochures about various countries and cities that interested him. After receiving the shocking news from his doctor, he and his wife, Zipper (Zappora Ashkenazi), decide to travel in the time remaining to him--a different city or country for every letter of the alphabet.

What follows is a touching and heart-breaking tale of love and loss and the nature of life and death. It beautifully illustrates how two people can make the most of their time and it reminds us that we should live life to the fullest every day. It shouldn't matter if we know how many days we have left. If we lived as if today might be the last would it change how much we enjoy even the smallest of pleasures? Would we seek out friends and loved ones more avidly--to share more of life with them? It all too easy to get caught up in the struggle to make a living and to make ends meet and miss out on all the opportunities for pleasure and happiness.

I'm afraid that this review is short--but so is the book (119 pages). I don't want to say too much or you might not feel the need to read it. And you definitely should. It's really quite lovely. Five stars on my first go round--and five stars now.

2013 Review first posted on my blog My Reader's Block. Please request permission before reposting. Thanks.

Reread 5/7/23: This is book still resonates with me. A beautiful book that I'm glad reading challenges keep giving me a reason to reread. This time a challenge called for me to reread a book I often recommend to others. It's just as good as the first two times I read it.
Profile Image for Adinda.
491 reviews4 followers
March 6, 2017
Hoewel ik eigenlijk nooit onthoud waar het over gaat, heb ik toch een zwak voor dit fraaie kleine boekje. Na herlezen ben ik weer even op de hoogte: Ambrose Zephyr krijgt te horen dat hij nog maar een maand te leven heeft, waarop hij en zijn vrouw Zappora (Zipper) Ashkenazi een alfabetische wereldreis willen maken. Beide personages worden liefdevol neergezet in al hun eigenaardige details, maar dat maakt dat het boek ook erg verdrietig en eigenlijk vooral een requiem. Misschien blijf ik het daarom maar vergeten, in de hoop op een andere uitkomst van het verhaal?
Profile Image for Mieke McBride.
346 reviews2 followers
March 5, 2018
Glad Laura recommended this one! She encountered it as a "blind book date" with only the first line and no other details written on brown paper on the book. "This story is unlikely," is how the book begins-- but no, this is not a book about magical realism or the supernatural. I imagine a point of the book is to think through what is unlikely. Being told in your 50s you only have a month to live? Having the resources to plan a hasty trip to as many places as possible, working your way alphabetically? Walking through this all with a loving spouse, who abandons her high paying and prestigious job to support you? This book is only 120 pages but it feels both shorter (the pages are small) and longer (there is so much in every single line). I understand why several reviewers on Goodreads mentioned they reread it.
662 reviews25 followers
January 29, 2019
3 ⭐️

This is not my kind of book. I got it from a friend, thinking it was originally written in French and seeing how thin it was. I figured that, even if I didn’t like it, it would be short enough for me to finish it anyways. And that’s what I did.

I wouldn’t say it was good. But it wasn’t bad either. A kind of limbo between the two. It’s poetic, but not in verse. It’s cute and sad, but not enough to make me cry. It just is.
Profile Image for Ariel.
4 reviews
August 1, 2019
Are you the sort of man who wears black turtlenecks and loafers (sans socks)?
who enjoys interjecting french words and references into everyday conversations for the sheer thrill of it all?
who knows a few obscure composers or modern artists just well enough to reference them as old friends?
and who feels that traditional punctuation is just a tad, shall we say, confining?

Have I got the book for you...
Profile Image for Nancy Lewis.
1,161 reviews39 followers
August 23, 2022
Ambrose only has a month to live, but he still thinks he can visit 26 different cities, one for each letter of the alphabet, before he dies. Things break down after Istanbul. Either Ambrose lost steam because he was dying and didn't have it in him anymore, or the author lost momentum and decided to skip skip skip.
Profile Image for Tessa.
1,863 reviews69 followers
August 7, 2018

This was an enjoyable book, but not what I expected. It turns the adventure-under-a-time-limit trope on its head. I liked the characters, but I didn't fall in love with them. I enjoyed it but I probably wouldn't read it again.
493 reviews1 follower
March 29, 2018
A clever tale with quirky lovable characters (reminiscent of A Man Called Ove) and a reminder that we cannot buy more time. Travel till the health or the wealth run out.
Profile Image for Darrell Grizzle.
Author 10 books56 followers
March 26, 2019
A beautiful, thought provoking novella about the power of love in the face of death.
6 reviews
August 29, 2019
Found the writing style a bit robotic and the plot based off of a convenient, unrealistic backstory... wouldn't reccomend.
Profile Image for redthecryptid.
17 reviews
January 22, 2022
screaming crying throwing up i literally cannot. a domestic story with little to no plot but it was PERFECT. i cried ngl. a little difficult to understand at times but overall fantastic would read again
Profile Image for Marlene.
715 reviews
March 13, 2018
What a beautiful story. Simply told with elegance and grace. I cried for nearly an hour.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 588 reviews

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