June 2021

by Helen Elliott

‘Secrets of Happiness’ by Joan Silber
The American author’s Austenesque latest novel, a collage of short stories, traces the common pursuit of happiness through love and money

Ethan’s father makes a lot of money manufacturing women’s garments. He’s always travelling from New York to parts of the world where manufacturing is cheap. Ethan’s mother, Abby, intends to travel with him some time but she can’t make it work. She’s an English teacher and can only get away in the long summer holidays when travelling in those hot countries doesn’t appeal. Just after his sister’s dazzling wedding at The Cloisters, just as Ethan is settling into a new apartment with a new boyfriend, their lives are upended by news about their father. He has another family. He has two teenage sons who live with their mother in Queens. What’s more, the mother is the hostess of their favourite Thai restaurant. Their father brought her back from Thailand years ago. Both these sons were born in America.

Abby is an accomplished, vital and admired woman who loved her happy life. How could this happen? “Married thirty-two years,” she repeats to anyone who will listen. That’s her astonishment speaking. How does she feel? How could she not have known? Two answers. She feels crazy. And to ask her how she could not have known is to “blame the victim”, she snaps. Abby then starts to take charge of her own fate. She rents out their sprawling Upper West Side apartment and contracts to teach English in Thailand.

Joan Silber won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2017 for her novel Improvement. Secrets of Happiness (Allen & Unwin) is her sixth novel, although it might accurately be called her fourth short story collection, because Ethan’s story is just the bolt that unlatches a gate to a world scattered with connected people. Not that any of them are connected in profound physical ways. Silber traces the ways we all go about our lives. The title is a good-natured joke about what we all think we’re pursuing, and a jest about the self-help, self-improvement books with exactly this title. Although there is the constant reminder that the pursuit of happiness is written into the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, this mad pursuit was named as a right of the individual along with liberty and life. Silber’s characters, despite class or education, are conventional enough to assume that love and/or money are what they need to pursue the ever-elusive goal. And of the two, money is perhaps more powerful. This is not the only striking similarity with Jane Austen. I imagine they were both born with poise.

Nok, the Thai woman who struck a bargain with Ethan’s father, pursues her own line in happiness and it has little to do with romantic love. She doesn’t mind that after Ethan’s father has a stroke he calls her Abby. She has two sons who become well-fed American boys and all she expects for them is that meet “nice” girls. “Is that too much to ask?” she asks Joe, her responsible son. Her other son, Jack, an early delinquent, has gone to Bangkok, making money and finding love in very different ways.

Ethan doesn’t return until the last story, a brilliant and delicate collage concocted from paper, air and feathers, and bringing together Silber’s understanding of time, places and fate. These stories are all about small, individual lives lived intensely, joyfully, painfully, successfully, until intersecting planes of time catch up and everyone and everything dissolves into atoms, splitting and splitting again until they are nothing. Silber has a power that the rarest old masters have: close up, you feel their breath breathing life, nothing less, across a rosy cheek. You hold your own breath in those suspended seconds.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

Cover of The Monthly, June 2021
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