I read Joan Silber’s quietly impressive Improvement back in 2019 ending my review hoping to see more of her novels published here in the UK. I was delighted, then, to spot Secrets of Happiness in the publishing schedules. While Improvement explored the fallout of an accident through all that were affected by it, this new novel looks at our yearning for happiness through the revelation of the second family of an apparently happily married man.
Gil travelled frequently to Asia, arranging the manufacture of the garments which bore his name. Ethan and Allyson took their parents’ happiness for granted until the arrival of legal demands for the maintenance of his two teenage sons, tucked away with their Thai mother in Queens. From this revelation radiates out a series of connections, some close, others tangential. Ethan embarks on a legal career and a series of relationships once he comes out; Joe, his half-brother, becomes a computer scientist, looking up his old college flame when she’s widowed; Maribel had hoped that her intense affair with the man run over by a cab would lead to something else while Rachel meets Ethan when he falls for her brother’s lover but finds himself helping to look after his predecessor, still in the picture and suffering a terminal illness. All these connections, and more, are knitted together to form a work of fiction which explores the way in which we humans find happiness, often unexpectedly, and the things that get in the way.
Love and money were always twisted and tangled, always mistaken for each other
Rather like Improvement, Secrets of Happiness reads like an intricately connected set of short stories; if you look closely at that cover you’ll notice it’s a jigsaw which neatly sums up Silber’s structure. Beginning and ending with Ethan’s narrative revealing his father’s secret life and his own discovery of quiet happiness in his forties, each character’s story is narrated in their own voice, often overlapping with others in surprising ways. It’s the kind of structure adopted by Elizabeth Strout and executed with the same apparent ease although rather than a small town, Silber bases her novel in New York with several side trips to Asia, from Nepal to Thailand. Her characters are astutely portrayed, the baton passed from one to the other smoothly, and a pleasing thread of gentle humour runs through the novel. Money is a recurring theme, the lack of it often interrupting characters’ happiness, while love is sometimes found in the most surprising places. It ends on a satisfying, characteristically understated note. An absolute pleasure to read. I’m left hoping that her UK publishers won’t forget her backlist.
Allen and Unwin UK: London 9781911630081 288 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)