There are many different types of "family novels" being written in
today's insular world, and sadly not all of them are worth reading.
There are those that read like personal memoirs --- maudlin
accounts of dysfunctional upbringings and unforgotten family rifts
that often sound like the author is using his or her writing to
work through psychological problems left over from childhood (i.e.
whining). There are also those that boast an overarching theory
about The State of The Contemporary Family and a ripped-apart value
system without really delivering a graspable narrative. And then
there are those that, despite their minor flaws, deliver an
amicable mix of engrossing story and "state-of-things
philosophizing" so that by the time the book has concluded, its
readers feel that they not only have had an entertaining and
informative look-see into someone else's family life, but that they
have also realized a thing or two about their own.
Man Booker-shortlisted and Whitbread-winning author Justin
Cartwright's latest offering is thankfully the latter of the three.
A slow-to-unfold yet rightfully deliberate stroll through the
contours of human suffering and a story that recognizes the
importance of hope as an offset to seemingly irreversible tragedy,
THE PROMISE OF HAPPINESS describes one family's pieced-together
attempt at redemption following a far-reaching misfortune that
threatens to break them apart permanently.
At 32, Juliet Judd is at the height of her life. She has a cheeky,
hip gallery-owner boyfriend, a gorgeous Upper East Side apartment,
an Oxford education and a prestigious job at the preeminent
Christie's in New York. In the midst of it all, she is convicted of
an alleged crime --- it is questionable whether she plays an active
part in it or not --- and is sentenced to what turns out to be
three years in prison. The fact that there were others responsible
for stealing and reselling the Tiffany's glass window is beside the
point, according to the court. She is the one who wrote the checks.
She is the one with the prestigious reputation. She is the one who
must take the fall.
In her absence, the Judd family silently unravels --- each in their
own twisted struggle to reconcile the condemnation of their
prodigal daughter/sister. Her father Charles loses his business as
well as his grasp on reality, withering away into a frail shadow of
his former self. Her mother Daphne realizes the depths of her
unhappiness and tries to fill the seemingly endless empty hours
with pointless cooking classes and gardening. Her sister Sophie
drops out of school, starts doing drugs, and has an affair with her
boss, twenty years her senior. Her brother Charlie, despite
becoming successful in a burgeoning self-started Internet business,
enters into a relationship with a gorgeous yet seemingly vacuous
woman, Ana. Although Ana is pregnant and they have plans to marry,
it is questionable as to whether or not Charlie actually loves her.
Without Ju-Ju to hold the family together, the Judds flounder
about, wounded and self-righteous in their efforts to block out
what has befallen them.
Fast-forward three years and Juliet is being released from prison.
In preparation for her return home, a number of intentional (and
unintentional) transformations take place. Charlie plans to go
ahead with the wedding and Daphne makes arrangements for an
elaborate celebration --- bringing together her old family with the
new, all in a blind hope to restore peace and humility to their
shattered world. Sophie breaks up with her married boyfriend, takes
out her nose ring (a small yet symbolic gesture) and plans to move
home for the summer to get her life in gear. Even Charles, although
he has the hardest time of it, takes pains to get past his
depression enough to forgive his daughter (and himself) for all
that has transpired in her absence.
What makes THE PROMISE OF HAPPINESS so touching and worthwhile is
not so much the actual circumstances of Charlie's, Sophie's,
Daphne's, Charles's or Juliet's lives, but how each one deals with
the randomness of what happens to them in relation to how they
define themselves as individuals and as part of a breathing,
functioning family unit in the world. "And so this is life. It is
arbitrary; its narrative is erratic. [They] have been given a harsh
understanding of the human condition. [They] didn't ask for it, or
seek it." But they must keep moving and growing together,
As Tolstoy once wrote as the opening first lines to ANNA KARENINA,
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in
its own way." Justin Cartwright's eighth novel is a true testament
to the disparaging trials any family might encounter and to what
ends they might have to travel to make it through to the other
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on January 23, 2011
The Promise of Happiness