The BookBrowse Review

Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Secrets of Happiness
Secrets of Happiness
by Joan Silber

Paperback (7 Jun 2022), 288 pages.
Publisher: Counterpoint Press
ISBN-13: 9781640095311

When a man discovers his father in New York has long had another, secret, family - a wife and two kids - the interlocking fates of both families lead to surprise loyalties, love triangles, and a reservoir of inner strength.

Ethan, a young lawyer in New York, learns that his father has long kept a second family—a Thai wife and two kids living in Queens. In the aftermath of this revelation, Ethan's mother spends a year working abroad, returning much changed, as events introduce her to the other wife. Across town, Ethan's half brothers are caught in their own complicated journeys: one brother's penchant for minor delinquency has escalated, and the other must travel to Bangkok to bail him out, while the bargains their mother has struck about love and money continue to shape their lives.

As Ethan finds himself caught in a love triangle of his own, the interwoven fates of these two households elegantly unfurl to encompass a woman rallying to help an ill brother with an unreliable lover and a filmmaker with a girlhood spent in Nepal. Evoking a generous and humane spirit, and a story that ranges over three continents, Secrets of Happiness elucidates the ways people marshal the resources at hand to forge their own forms of joy.

Sadly, the publisher is unable to provide an excerpt of this book.


In Secrets of Happiness, Joan Silber takes us into the intersecting lives of a shifting cast of characters to explore the diverse ways people construct a sense of meaning and happiness out of their own messy realities.

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Like several of her previous books, Secrets of Happiness—Silber's ninth work of fiction—is a novel composed of linked stories, or a "novel-in-stories," as the genre is sometimes called. Chapter by chapter, the stories trade off the role of narrator relay-style, with a secondary character from one story stepping into the narrator's role in the next.

In the first story, we meet Ethan, a lawyer in New York who discovers that his father has a secret second family living across town. Subsequent stories introduce us to a widening web of characters whose lives intersect to varying degrees, including one of Ethan's newly discovered half-brothers, a young Englishwoman whose affair with a married American ends tragically, a middle-aged woman caring for her dying brother, a labor activist working for an NGO in Cambodia and a young filmmaker making a documentary on textile factories.

As the book unfolds, subtle points of contact among the characters emerge, showing in intriguing ways how the central dramas of our own lives can ripple outward into the lives of others. Recurring themes—love and compassion, money and greed, loss and resilience—also weave through the stories as the characters, caught up in their own particular circumstances, all grapple in different ways with the book's fundamental question: How do we find happiness? Indeed, does it even make sense to ask? "In the Buddhism my father sometimes followed you heard arguments on the vanity of grasping for happiness," Tara, the young filmmaker, muses in Chapter 6. "Whatever you ran after and clung to was destined to slip out of your hands, melt like snow, dissolve into thin air."

Silber's effortlessly elegant prose—lucid, straightforward, never fussy or showy—is a pleasure to read, and the seven stories that make up the book brim with insightfulness and gentle wit. Once a student of the great short story writer Grace Paley, Silber displays a similar talent for conveying the voice of her characters, for weaving together offhand details that capture the texture of their lives. Animated with a sense of immediacy and vividness, her characters feel real, multifaceted and very human.

At times, the threads connecting the different chapters can seem thin. Without a larger narrative arc bridging the separate storylines, the space between one story and the next occasionally feels jarring. As a result, Secrets of Happiness doesn't have the sort of cohesive unity one expects from a book billed as a novel.

This absence of an overarching narrative unity is especially noticeable given how much dramatic potential is packed into Ethan's story in the first chapter—his father's double life, the shadow family across town, the half-brothers who grew up in a socioeconomic reality so different from Ethan's. There are so many angles left to pursue, so much material left to mine, that it feels disappointing when this plotline largely drops out from the rest of the book. Although Ethan's half-brother Joe steps into the role of narrator in the second chapter, his storyline goes in a different direction, as does each subsequent chapter. And although Ethan returns as narrator in the seventh and final chapter, bringing us full circle, by then too many other characters and too many other tangents have intervened to give us any sense of closure.

Perhaps that, however, is precisely Silber's point. If the book offers any answer to the question of happiness, it is that we should not expect any grand unifying narratives or crowning revelations. Instead, insofar as there are any secrets to happiness, they lie in the small joys we snatch from the everyday circumstances of our lives, in the slivers of meaning, value and contentment people manage to find in even the roughest patches, in the myriad ways they find the strength to go on, no matter what.

Watching his mother pull her life together after her husband's double life comes to light, Ethan marvels at her ability to move on from betrayal without bitterness. "I didn't know that I wanted to be inspired by any stellar methods of getting through a terrible breakup. I wanted to live the rest of my life without having to know this; I hoped to be coupled forever," he remarks. "I watched my mother anyway—how well she was doing without what we expected her to need, how much less she was at the mercy of all of us—and I saw that I was storing away the details for a rainy day or whatever."

Reviewed by Elisabeth Herschbach

Literary Hub, One of the Most Anticipated Books of the Year
A new Joan Silber book is always a reason to celebrate. Her latest is the story of a family—two families—exploding after a years-long infidelity comes to light, told in intersecting, polyphonic voices, like a tapestry of those affected.

The Millions, One of the Most Anticipated Books of the Year
This complex, intergenerational novel spans three continents as it reveals the connection between the two families, no longer secret to each other.

Washington Post
These stories unfurl with such verbal verisimilitude that they're like late-night phone calls from old friends. Every imperative page trips along with the wry wisdom of ordinary speech — the illusion of artlessness that only the most artful writers can create.

New York Times
Secrets of Happiness shows what happens when the Silber structure is spread too thin, its linked characters imperfectly calibrated... Capable of ecstasy, this time Silber delivers merely something humane, elegant and wise.

BookPage (starred review)
The complex seesaw of love and finances, both offered and withheld, is explored throughout seven chapters and across four continents. Silber's device—a secondary character from one chapter commanding the narrative in the next—is as effortless as a dragonfly skimming over a pond...Secrets of Happiness also explores the great generosity of love that exists in families, whether we're born into them or choose them. Rarely is a novel of moral ideas so buoyant in spirit or so exquisitely crafted.

Buzzfeed, One of the Most Anticipated Books of the Year
Joan Silber is a masterful writer of multifaceted characters in complex relationship dynamics...Her new novel follows a man harboring a secret—he's leading two lives, part of two families—and the impact of his deception radiates far beyond him.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Silber has her own sly and satisfying system for linked stories, plucking a character from one to helm the next, moving the narrative forward, or sideways, from that person's point of view...These secrets of happiness really will make you happy, at least for a few sweet hours.

Library Journal
Silber moves easily in and out of her characters' heads; the novel is deceptively airy, yet, given a reflective reading, it has an ethical center without the shortcut of easy morality. Silber's fans, and readers who enjoy smart, humane contemporary fiction that doesn't talk down to them, will enjoy this work.

Publishers Weekly
This mesmerizing story of love, lies, and the consequences of betrayal brims with heart and intelligence.

Author Blurb Ann Patchett
Secrets of Happiness unfolds across families and lovers, across time and expectations, across the country and across the world, and the bigger it gets, the more it shows how deeply connected we are. Joan Silber writes with a frankness and freshness that draws the reader closer with every page. It would be impossible to overstate just how good this book is.

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Sweatshops in Asia

Garment workers rally on anniversary of Rana Plaza collapse In Joan Silber's Secrets of Happiness, Ethan's father, Gil, has a lucrative career in the women's clothing industry, frequently jetting off to parts of Asia to oversee the outsourcing of production. Elsewhere in the book, a character named Bud takes a job with an organization in Cambodia campaigning to improve working conditions in garment factories, reminding us of the flip side of Gil's success—the cheap labor that drives the profits of clothing companies like his.

In a bid to maximize profits, Western fashion retailers began outsourcing in the 1970s, offshoring garment and textile manufacturing to countries with low overhead costs, particularly in Asia. Today, almost 60 percent of the world's textiles and clothing are produced in Asia, with China, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Vietnam accounting for the largest share. Across the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, an estimated 65 million people work in garment factories, according to the International Labour Organization. That represents some 75 percent of all garment workers worldwide.

For the majority of workers in these factories, the low production costs that attract big-name apparel brands translate into long working hours, low pay and systemically hazardous working conditions. Worldwide, garment workers are among the lowest paid of any industry. In many Asian countries with large textile manufacturing industries, the wages of apparel workers fall far below a living wage, the bare minimum a person in that country needs to cover the basic necessities of life. In Bangladesh, the minimum wage for a garment worker is the equivalent of around $95 a month. That comes to barely $3 a day.

Faced with immense workloads and tight turnaround times, garment workers in many factories across Asia are forced to toil long hours without adequate breaks—and often without overtime pay or even a day off. "You see them come out of these factories where they work ten hours a day in suffocating heat, wages so low they can barely eat," as Bud says in Secrets of Happiness, describing the sweatshop conditions of Cambodian garment factories.

Those who fall short of their production targets may get their already meager pay docked or face threats and abuse, as one garment worker in Bangladesh told Human Rights Watch in an interview: "Whenever someone missed the target bosses started shouting at them. Sometimes they would also beat the workers. One of the supervisors once kicked me on the back just because I was talking to a fellow worker."

Workers who try to unionize, protest or organize for better working conditions often face attacks and retaliation. As a result, millions of garment workers across Asia still struggle to eke out a living under appalling conditions in factories that are stiflingly hot, unsanitary and poorly ventilated. Constant exposure to fiber dust and toxic chemicals from textile dyes puts workers at risk of respiratory problems and other illnesses. And unsafe working environments—including buildings with structural or electrical problems, lack of proper fire exits or sprinkling systems and inadequate safety protocols—raise the risk of fires, accidents and other workplace disasters.

The deadliest of these occurred in Dhaka, Bangladesh—where Tara, a young filmmaker in Secrets of Happiness, goes to conduct research for her documentary on the textile industry. In April 2013, Rana Plaza—an eight-story building containing five clothing factories—collapsed because of structural failures, killing 1,134 workers and injuring over 2,500. Although cracks had appeared in the building the day before, the garment factory owners ignored warnings to stay away and ordered workers to report the following day. Later, it emerged that the top four floors of the building had been constructed without building permits.

At the time of the Rana Plaza disaster, at least 29 global clothing brands were doing business with the factories in the building, according to Clean Clothes Campaign, a network of organizations working to improve labor conditions in the garment and sportswear industries. The tragedy brought international attention to the way that such companies profit from exploitative business practices that perpetuate inequalities in the global economy and keep millions of garment workers trapped in poverty. It also sparked a growing movement to reform the fashion world from within. To find out more about some of these initiatives, check out the many resources available from the Clean Clothes Campaign and other organizations, such as Fashion Revolution, the Fair Wear Foundation and Labour Behind the Label.

Garment workers rally on the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse. Photo courtesy of Solidarity Center (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Filed under Society and Politics

By Elisabeth Herschbach

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