‘Secrets of Happiness’ by Joan Silber – A Lot of Random Persons Doing a Lot of Random Things

 

‘Secrets of Happiness’ by Joan Silber   (2021) – 274 pages

 

Secrets of Happiness’ is filled with men and women and their always frenetic activities. All this signifies very little. The characters in these very loosely linked stories go to the far reaches of the world, usually far south eastern Asia, and get involved in myriad affairs, but nothing has any real impact.

As far as I am concerned, all the characters could have been named what’s-his-name or what’s-her-name. They were all quite interchangeable.

An insignificant peripheral character in a previous story becomes the main protagonist in the next story. This is a valid stance as every person’s existence is significant on its own terms. However each story is an accumulation of near arbitrary events and movements for these people without any underlying motive.

The novel is divided up into seven sections each from a different character’s perspective except that the first and last sections are from a character named Ethan’s point of view.

The title ‘Secrets of Happiness’ is supposed to be the unifying factor that turns these loosely linked stories into a novel. So what are the secrets of happiness? About the only guidance that I found in this novel is to follow your own proclivities. However there is a line of dialogue in the book that contradicts that advice:

People think that if they are honest about their cravings, it makes anything OK,” I said. “That’s a fallacy of modern life.”

The onrush of incidents and forever more, more minor characters leaves no room for any real depth. All we are left with is a surface word-picture of frenetic activity and scattered casual acquaintances.

There were a couple of individual lines which I did enjoy in this “novel”:

“She’d been an English major in college, perfect preparation for not having a job,”

My mama so poor the ducks threw bread at her.”

However, overall, I found this work off-putting. You can read the more favorable reviews of ‘Secrets of Happiness’ after you read mine. There are some out there.

 

Grade:    C-

 

 

11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Charles Behlen on July 9, 2021 at 6:23 PM

    Your comments sound like what I get when I try to write fiction!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  2. Hi Tony! I enjoyed the review, as I appreciate negative assessments as well as positive (bloggers, myself included, incline towards positive IMO). Silber is one of those writers whom I’ve never quite gotten around to reading, although I’ve been intending to sample her work for years. I’m now quite intrigued to discover whether my own reaction to this collection will be more positive than yours and, if so, why!
    Although I can’t think of specific examples at the moment (Elizabeth Strout maybe?) it seems that the idea of short stories, more or less linked, is very trendy right now. At least Silber’s collection wasn’t marketed as a novel, as some of them are!

    Liked by 1 person

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    • Hi Janakay,
      Collections of linked stories are fine. I have enjoyed many of them, probably starting with “The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose” (published elsewhere as ‘Who Do You Think You Are’) by Alice Munro. I have also much enjoyed Elizabeth Stroud’s work. Or much earlier, ‘Winesburg, Ohio’ by Sherwood Anderson.

      Actually this is the fourth work of Joan Silber I have read. I much liked the one I first read, ‘Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories’, but the last three have not worked for me. It’s time I dropped her work from my reading routine.

      I will be interested in getting your reactions to Silber’s work.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

  3. No one does short stories like Munro, do they? I read “The Beggar Maid” many years ago and thought it was great, even though at that time I was really not “into” the short story form. Like you, I also enjoy Elizabeth Stroud’s work, at least what I’ve read of it, both novels and short stories. Sherwood Anderson is a writer I’ve yet to get to, along with John Dos Passos (I tend to lump these two together based on nothing more than the fact they’re both pre-WWII).
    Speaking of Stroud, I was absolutely thrilled when I just checked her website to see she’s another book coming out in October, “Oh, William,” feature Lucy Barton and her ex-husband. https://www.elizabethstrout.com
    I did check out one of your previous Joan Silber reviews & noticed you didn’t much like it (I can’t remember which one; think it concerned a novel). I really must get around to trying some of her work.
    The idea of linked short stories is great; when done well it really lends depth that a particular story might otherwise lack, simply because that’s the nature of the genre (there’s a reason they’re call “short stories,” right?). I think my complaint, to the extent I was voicing one, was aimed more towards novels which are so episodic that they may as well be a short story collection. I suppose it would help my argument if I could think of a specific example!

    Liked by 1 person

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    • John Dos Passos is one of the few US classic writers I have yet to read, probably because his novels are quite long.
      Thanks for the info regarding Elizabeth Stroud; I will be looking out for the new one.
      Yes, it seems they are trying to market ‘Secrets of Happiness’ as a novel yet it seems like “ring of stories” better describes all of her work that I’ve read.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

  4. I felt this way about the last Lily Tuck! I used to love Silber, but fell behind when I switched over to dead authors! I did read her National Book Award winner (a few years ago?) and enjoyed it, but it will take a while to get around to this one – because I’m behind..

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    • Hi Kat,
      If you mean ‘Sisters’ by Lily Tuck, I liked that one a lot.
      The nice thing about dead authors is that they aren’t writing any new works I “have” to read. However others are still scrounging around their papers to find unpublished stuff they can publish. 🙂

      Like

      Reply

      • I’ve always loved her work, but I disliked “Heathcliff Redux: A Novella and Stories.” Retelling Wuthering Heights is always a problem! I shall have to try “Sisters,” because I am a fan usually.

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