Friday, July 3, 2009

SECRETS TO HAPPINESS by Sarah Dunn

On May 15, the New York Times published Jincy Willett's review of Secrets to Happiness by Sarah Dunn, and I immediately put a hold on it at the library. I love the Wheaton Public Library, by the way. They keep up with the new books--this one, released in March, was on their shelves in April--and if they don't have a book you want, they'll find it for you.

This book is not a how-to guide to happiness. It is, I suppose, chick lit: the main character and most of her friends are single, 30-something city dwellers who obsess about their relationships, which are, at least from my vantage point--I'm the age of their unpleasant mothers--pretty screwed up.

But it's much better than the term chick-lit implies. In fact, after I read a few passages to Mr Neff, who tends to read books with titles like Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine, he said he wanted to read it too. I warned him that it contains a lot of gratutitous, um, carnality. That did not appear to faze him.

To learn more about the book's content, read the NYT review. If all you want is a recommendation, try this: Secrets to Happiness is witty, fast-paced, and cheerful. The characters are intelligent, if feckless, and nearly all of them are endearing (I'll make an exception for Spence). Holly's philosophizing is hilarious and sometimes profound. "Somebody should feel guilty," she tells her married friend Amanda, who is about to take a lover, "and I tend to feel all the feelings in the room."

The only thing I don't like about the book is its happy ending. Well, I sort of like it. I mean, I'm glad for all the characters that things work out so well for them, despite their deplorable behavior, and I try to avoid novels that leave their protagonists weeping or catatonic. On the other hand, Holly criticizes psychotherapy for making "it possible for a person to do whatever they wanted to do, with whomever they wanted to do it, when and where and however the hell they felt like it, while reaping no negative emotional consequences whatsoever." So it seems odd when Holly's moral compass--the only one in the crowd, apparently, and a consistent theme throughout the book--turns out to be irrelevant.

Maybe Jack, apparently untroubled by moral questions, gets it right: "'You believe in God,' he said [to Holly]. 'You just don't believe that God is good.'" Maybe a good God would redeem, not smite.

And yet, in Holly's words, "It just feels like there should be consequences.... at least I'd feel like there was some moral center somewhere, like we lived in a universe where things made sense. Instead, in this version, people do whatever the hell they want and everybody gets off scot-free."
* * *
Here's an excerpt I enjoyed. Holly and Jack, post-coitally, are sitting nude on the bed, discussing religion.
"What about finding a church that's Christian, but not so..."
"Not so evangelical?"
"Not so conservative, I was going to say."
"Like, what, one of those Episcopal churches that has an openly gay priest?" said Holly.
"Why not?"
"With the clothes drive in the narthex and the transgendered support group in the basement, antiwar sloganeering from the pulpit, potlucks featuring mung bean and tofu chili, hymns addressed to God our Mother, that sort of thing?"
"In that general neighborhood, yes."
"I can't do it," said Holly. It's completely foreign to me. It's worse than foreign. It pushes more buttons."
"What do you mean?"
"I sit in a church like that and I start to feel like Jerry Falwell. It brings out every long-discarded fundamentalist impulse in me," Holly confessed. "I find myself flipping back through Leviticus and searching for injunctions against sodomy. Honestly, I'm sort of stuck. I can't go forward and I can't go back."

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