BookBrowse Reviews Secrets of Happiness by Joan Silber

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Secrets of Happiness

by Joan Silber

Secrets of Happiness by Joan Silber X
Secrets of Happiness by Joan Silber
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  • First Published:
    May 2021, 288 pages

    Paperback:
    Jun 2022, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Herschbach
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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.

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."

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in June 2021, and has been updated for the June 2022 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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