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Secrets to Happiness


Secrets to Happiness

Sarah Dunn’s first novel, THE BIG LOVE, was a big hit among the kind of readers who also adore Sex and the City. Its unconventional story of a woman forced to start over in the wake of a near-disastrous relationship struck a chord with any woman who has found herself still searching for lasting love on the wrong side of 30. In SECRETS TO HAPPINESS, her second work of fiction, Dunn continues the sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking journeys a variety of New York types take on their personal quests to find love --- and happiness.

At the center of the book is failed novelist and frustrated scriptwriter Holly, who has just emerged, somewhat shell-shocked, from a year-long period of mourning her recent divorce. She opens her heart to two new males: one, a 21-year-old who can’t decide between starting law school and moving to Austin to help manage a club; and a loveable dog that also happens to have a brain tumor and require thousands of dollars’ worth of surgery. Holly is optimistic that her ability to nurture Chester (that’s the dog) also bodes well for her future with her own species, even if all around her she sees nothing but relationships on the verge of failing.

Holly’s best friend Amanda has never seemed happier; her husband is convinced it’s because she’s taking Paxil, but, Amanda confesses to Holly, it’s because she’s on the verge of having an affair. Holly’s “ex before the ex,” Spence, is outraged because his current long-distance girlfriend has been calling Holly for relationship advice after reading about a thinly disguised Spence in Holly’s novel. And one of Holly’s acquaintances, Betsy, is embarking down an endless series of bad dates in search of the elusive happiness, when the real thing might be right in front of her.

At times, Dunn’s novel might hit a little too close to home for some readers, who may recognize their own futile demands and desires in its pages: “Things are different now. People are less willing to put up with unhappiness,” remarks one character, leading another to respond, “And yet, so many people are so unhappy.” Holly has an evangelical Christian background, which leads her to cast many things --- such as the quest for happiness and the willingness to destroy relationships in the name of that happiness --- in religious terms. Holly’s thoughtful, perceptive approach may cause readers to think about themselves and their relationships in new ways as well --- even if it makes them feel at times as if they’re standing in front of a not-too-flattering mirror.

All this makes SECRETS TO HAPPINESS sound like a big downer, but it’s really not. Dunn manages to wrest many laugh-out-loud moments out of her characters’ dilemmas, but where her writing is sharpest is when it comments on the peculiarities of modern life in Manhattan, as in this passage in which Holly contemplates her love-hate relationship with the city: “If Holly sometimes felt like she was trapped in an abusive relationship with New York City, then the month of August was when the city went on a bender and dragged her around by the hair.”

In the end, what Dunn creates in her novel is, as she writes, “a tapestry,” in which you can eventually “see all of the threads linking one part to another, all of the strange and random connections.” Discovering these connections, and the often hilarious ways they’re formed, broken and re-formed, will delight and inspire readers looking for more substance and less silliness in their chick-lit.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 23, 2011

Secrets to Happiness
by Sarah Dunn

  • Publication Date: July 2, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316013609
  • ISBN-13: 9780316013604