Great premise falls short
“Secrets of Happiness”
The deception that sets up the story of “Secrets of Happiness” is revealed on page 10. The premise — after 32 years of conventional marriage and a comfortable Upper West Side existence, a father reveals that he has a second family in Queens — is so juicy, so ripe for exploration, that one appreciates Joan Silber’s to-the-point-ness here.
But the focus falls away shortly afterward. Silber has a particular style that she returns to in “Secrets of Happiness,” shuffling through first-person-narrated perspectives to complicate the reader’s understanding of some part of the larger story.
The risk in writing the way Silber does is that in those spins away from the main narrative, Silber needs to reassert the “why” for each new section. Why should the reader care about this peripheral character, especially if their section doesn’t appear to serve the main narrative?
Reading “Secrets of Happiness,” I found myself asking myself that too often. The initial chapter, narrated by the father’s legitimate son, Ethan, is rich with intrigue. The second family in Queens is quite a bit poorer than the first family, and the mother in the second family is a Thai immigrant with shaky English. When the father dies and leaves behind some serious money, everyone in the first family aside from Ethan is hesitant to give any to the second family.
There’s enough there to sustain an entire novel. And the next section, which switches over to a son of the second family, Joe, introduces new drama in its recapitulation of what the reader thought they already knew. But in learning the stories of, say, Joe’s ex-girlfriend’s dead husband’s secret English lover, I found myself missing the original story too much to justify the distance from the principals.
To write how Silver does is artistically courageous. But there’s something missing in “Secrets of Happiness,” which is a shame, because in those first 10 pages, it’s right there for the taking.