Joan Silber’s last novel, 2017′s “Improvement,” was rhapsodically reviewed and won both the PEN/Faulkner award and the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction. In a piece on the book, critic Charles Finch called Silber America’s Alice Munro. Her new novel-in-stories, “Secrets of Happiness,” confirms Finch’s assessment.
“Secrets of Happiness” is told in seven first-person stories narrated by characters whose lives intersect in surprising and enriching ways. Each narrator reflects on the nature of family, the toxicity of secrets, the fragility and beneficence of romantic love, the relationship between money and contentment, issues of legacy and inheritance, and the fumbling, bumbling search for something like happiness.
We begin and end with Ethan, a gay, Yale-educated, Manhattan lawyer whose life is upended when his father, Gil, is revealed to have lived a secret double life. While his mother, Abby, taught “eighth-grade English at a middle school in the Bronx” and raised Ethan and his sister, Allyson, in a “homey and messy [apartment] with sprawling rooms, very Upper West Side,” Gil was “off to parts of Asia to oversee the cheap manufacture of ladies’ garments ... happy capitalist exploiter that he was.” After a series of inappropriate and unfortunate boyfriends, Allyson married a lovely pediatrician-in-training, Ethan fell in love with Tony, a guest at her wedding, and a year later, everyone seems to be on the brink of perfect happiness: “We had just moved in together and were still arranging the furniture this way and that, seeking the perfection we knew was ours, in a happy sort of dither, when I got the phone call from my sister. ‘It’s about Dad, and you’re not going to believe this.’”
His sister tells Ethan the shattering news that Gil has been served in a paternity suit and that he’s had a “whole other family” for many years. Gil then informs his aghast wife and children that Nok, the hostess at a Thai restaurant that he’s often taken them to, was his lover in Thailand, that he’d brought her over years ago and provided for her, and she is the mother of his two teenage sons. Self-righteous and misogynistic, Gil grumbles to his gay son: “Women always want money ... you’re lucky you’re not involved with women.”
They “all had to think differently” about Gil as a marriage of 32 years crumbles to dust. At first heartbroken but ultimately resilient and plucky, Abby decides finally to travel, improbably chooses Thailand as her destination, immerses herself in the local culture, and becomes a different, albeit even more admirable, person to her children. Gil suffers a series of strokes, confuses his two “wives” for each other, and dies ignominiously, a shadow of his vigorous, blustering self. When Ethan incurs the wrath of his mother, sister, and boyfriend for sending Nok a $20,000 check after she’s left out of the will, he has a pang of longing for the father who’d wronged them all: “Spurned for disloyalty on all sides, I had an odd moment of sympathy for my father. I missed him, all of a sudden, as if I hadn’t gotten before that he wasn’t ever coming back. … How hard he must’ve worked at that elaborate life of his, hiding and emerging and making himself up. He took to his role, as spies do, but it wasn’t the easiest way to live.”
Ethan’s ability to see his father in the round, to recognize the difficulty of his experience, to forgive a flawed human being in a radical act of sympathy, epitomizes Silber’s stance throughout the book. As she gives us narrators ranging from one of Nok’s sons to the spurned lover of a married man, from the radical, questing son of arch-conservative parents to a documentary filmmaker raised in Nepal and Berkeley, she explores the difficult act of self-fashioning in the face of financial obstacles, racism, illness, mortality, familial pressures, and obligations. Her characters steal, cheat, and lie, they fall into addiction and give in to destructive anger, but they are never reduced to cartoons or stereotypes.
The radical son, reflecting on how different he is from his “very-far-right John Birch Society” parents, declares to himself that “the whole notion of families was misguided and false,” but later asks, achingly: “Were you always and forever what you were born into?” All of Silber’s narrators grapple with similar tensions between their yearning for autonomy and the constraints imposed on them by their families, their societies, their own natures. At the same time, they come to understand and forgive those who have harmed or wronged them, and such capacious empathy is what frees them to experience happiness in all its elusive richness. “Who knew where happiness came from?” one character asks. All have theories, all have methods for attaining it, and all come to appreciate its unexpected visitations.
Charles Dickens, whose novels are mentioned several times by narrators, hovers as a kind of tutelary spirit over the book. Wealth, class, inheritance — the main Dickensian themes are Silber’s too. In the emphasis on wills, legacies, and inter-familial feuds, “Bleak House” looms large. But in its depiction of vulnerable humans making their way in a difficult world, watching their hopes, expectations, and ambitions come to nothing and revaluing what is most important, and in its use of first-person narrators, “Secrets of Happiness” seems most indebted to “Great Expectations.” Here we have six Pips, bound together by strange coincidences and chains of connection, ruminating on innocence and experience, disappointed, disillusioned, yet still longing for true happiness. These are recognizable people, stepping out from the ruins of their lives, who have been bent and broken, but perhaps into a better shape.
SECRETS OF HAPPINESS
By Joan Silber
Counterpoint, 288 pp., $27
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.”