Summary and book reviews of Spectacular Happiness by Peter Kramer

Spectacular Happiness

By Peter D. Kramer

Spectacular Happiness
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  • Hardcover: Jul 2001,
    320 pages.
    Paperback: Jun 2002,
    320 pages.

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Book Summary

In his bestselling Listening to Prozac, Peter Kramer asked how much happiness we have a right to expect, and how quickly we should demand it. In Should You Leave? he questioned whether trading up has replaced loyalty in intimate relationships. Critics have praised his intellect and writing, comparing him to Roth and Updike, and have anticipated his turn to fiction.

Now Kramer has made that transition. Spectacular Happiness is a daring, controversial novel about what constitutes the good life. Chip Samuels is a community college teacher and handyman on Cape Cod, loyal to the radical values his wife, Anais, introduced him to in the sixties. A patient husband and, above all, a loving father, his world has been shattered by Anais's decision to run off with their son in search of a more conventional life devoted to getting and spending.

Spectacular Happiness opens when Chip is named as the chief suspect in a series of anarchist bombings of beachfront trophy homes. Meticulously planned, announced with fireworks, these explosions have caught the public imagination, and the irony is that Chip, now an outlaw-celebrity, is drawn into the publicity-based culture he is aiming to disrupt. His response: to assemble a memoir for his estranged son, a father's attempt to explain his motivations before the media distorts them.

Chip has splendid allies: Sukey Kuykendahl, an upper-class Realtor with weaknesses for alcohol and overbearing men; Wendy Moro, a self-effacing defense attorney thrust into the limelight; and Manny Abelman, an aging psychotherapist disenchanted with his profession. But it is Chip's own voice that dominates the novel, concerned, searching, painfully aware of the absurd behaviors love can demand.

Darkly intelligent, Spectacular Happiness will alter the way we look both at oversized beachfront mansions and at the culture that spawns them, the culture Chip calls the society of the spectacle. Provocative, compelling, stunning in its execution, this is the masterful first novel that Kramer's nonfiction has led his readers and reviewers to expect.

Chapter One: Calling

I saw you today on the midday news: a teenage boy, skinny body draped in an oversized Chicago Bulls shirt, eyes shaded by a Swoosh cap, matching red, with brim curved just so. I knew you instantly, before the label was added to the picture, before you spoke. I was struck by an emotion that had more force than direction. It could as easily have been despair as elation. A phrase ran through my mind: already grown. Words that toward the end of his life my father repeated when he caught sight of me. In the midst of disorientation, what abides is wonder at a child's taking adult form.

You looked thinner than I had imagined. The effect of Ritalin, I suppose. You were taller than the reporter, so it seems not to have stunted your growth. Like a daytime talk-show hostess, the reporter prompted, If you could speak to your dad, what would you say? She held the microphone to your mouth. For a moment you stared at her tongue-tied. Hi, Dad, you said, perhaps because that...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Though it is built around the elements of a comic thriller -- explosions, mobsters, federal agents, and a man on the run -- Spectacular Happiness proves to be a romance and a thoughtful exploration of the nature of happiness: What sort of private contentment is possible in a culture focused on achievement, accumulation, and celebrity?

Discussion Points
  1. How does the form in which this novel is written -- a series of diary entries by the protagonist -- enhance the story it tells? Does it succeed in focusing attention on the book's central themes of intimacy and disrupted family life? How would the novel and our response to the main character be different if its narrative were told more conventionally -- in the ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews
Author Blurb Amy Hempel, author of Tumble Home
The grace, restraint, and precision of Peter Kramer's writing amplify the power of the highly charged ideas and explosive action in this striking, original novel. The questions he directs at the way we live now are vexing and revelatory.

Author Blurb W. P. Kinsella, author of Shoeless Joe
Not since The Monkey Wrench Gang have I read such an insightful and provocative look at political protest. This is satire with a message, written on the comic principle that if you bomb it they will come.

Author Blurb Abraham Verghese, author of The Tennis Partner and My Own Country
A brilliant and completely original novel that dazzles, shocks, entertains, and ultimately transforms. Kramer's writing is razor sharp and cuts to expose the soft center of modern society. What makes Spectacular Happiness so memorable is a narrator whose intimate, intelligent, and humane voice lingers with us long after we put the book down.

Publishers Weekly

The depth, quality and ambition of Kramer's prose will surprise those expecting a superficial crossover effort.

Library Journal

The book exposes certain human foibles that are especially manifest in society today with outrageous scenes that provoke uneasy laughter because they are rooted in reality.

Booklist

Rich in acute observation, Samuel's riveting story weaves back and forth in time with meandering asides into family history, picking up momentum as it heads to a gratifying surprise ending.

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