The Sad Truth About Happiness

by Anne Giardini
ISBN: 0002005948

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A Review of: The Sad Truth About Happiness
by Michael Harris

Thirty-two-year-old Maggie Selgrin is given three months to live. Being the good middle-child of her family, she feels the important thing is not to make a fuss.
Happily, the magazine quiz that informed Maggie of her death-date also presents a loop-hole, a backdoor she might use to dodge out of her sentence-if she can only change her "Are You Happy" answer from a lackadaisical "I don't know" to an unquestioning "Yes." If she can convince herself that the lukewarm tapioca life she lives can be termed "Happy", then Maggie gets to potter away another 60 years. Happiness, proposes Anne Giardini in her debut novel, makes all the difference.
The Sad Truth About Happiness is a story that holds up home and family-conservatism, in the gentler sense-as the access code to a mythical happy life. Maggie speculates early on that her childhood home "knows us better, and with more kindness, than we know or think of ourselves." And this book's urbane, domestic meditation on the quest for happiness posits that a similarly omniscient architecture-the skeleton of our characters-dictates who we are, bypassing any clumsy struggle toward self-betterment.
Maggie's friends are an erudite bunch, pleasantly employed as journalists, musicians, and booksellers. Her new roomie, Rebecca, doubles as a gourmet chef. And Maggie is a sensible creature, not the sort who would allow a magazine quiz to rule her life. And yet.
The seed is planted and Maggie begins to awake with an "intense stab of panic" each morning; ultimately, she loses the "fragile skill" of falling asleep. Insomnia ushers in, oddly enough, a maelstrom of male suitors, which is all to the good. Apparently drawn to the exhausted and weak, men in Giardini's world fly in quick succession to Maggie's side and offer their wares.
Charles is the wealthiest of the peacocks and, therefore, is given the most pages. "The boat was only one of Charles's many passions. Another was houses-he owned six altogether." But a house is not a home, so it is not happiness either, and Maggie discharges him-apparently largely because of his poor taste in architecture.
While there is undoubtedly a shade of Elizabeth Bennet in this heroine, with her sensitive judgments and aloof humour, Maggie is also frustratingly passive when it comes to finding a suitable mate. She will demure, and she will say yes' or no', but Maggie does not lunge-she does not choose, but waits to be chosen.
Maggie's heart is not invested in romantic hunts. Her family, which is also comprised exclusively of people she did not choose, becomes the narrative's fulcrum instead when Lucy, the hot-headed sister, finds herself (as if by surprise) pregnant.
Being unwed and raised in West Vancouver (the posh part of town), Lucy casts about for a father. The contenders are: Gian Luigi (the most Italian man ever created) and good-old Ryan, who is faithful to a fault. Lucy chooses safety and Ryan. "At this point," she explains to Maggie, "it's not about happiness, it's about doing the right thing." Maggie thinks that perhaps doing the right thing might make you happy in return, to which Lucy retorts, "That's because you're nave, idealistic, and romantic."
The Sad Truth About Happiness is pointedly none of those things, especially not when it comes to describing Maggie's city of residence. >From the West Coast herself, Giardini selects Vancouver's mountains and ocean as her scrim. While Maggie clearly enjoys the city, she also knows it to be young, rootless, and encumbered with less-than-honourable attempts at architecture. Giardini likens the stuccoed apartments to melting slabs of Neapolitan ice-cream.
Maggie does have a home, of sorts, in Vancouver. But that home is a nervous one, built in the "wilderness" of the continent's margin. Compared to the far older city of Rome, from where the Latin lover Gian Luigi flies in, Vancouver is no more mature than the baby in Lucy's fast-growing belly.
The elements that Giardini plays with, however, belie the youthfulness of her setting. The very word "happy", can be traced back to the 14th century, when, tellingly, it meant "lucky" rather than joyful. "Happy" became a suffix during World War Two (bomb-happy, flak-happy) in order to express a sense of being frazzled or dazed from extreme stress. The sad truth about happiness is that it is fired like a bullet, either blindsiding us or missing our lives entirely. For the characters in Giardini's novel, nothing could be worse planned than the delivery of happiness.
But that won't stop Maggie from spending the bulk of the narrative attempting to attain it. Like most urban folk, she is desperate for an external solution to the problem of her own contentment. She stays out late, cleans the apartment, takes up jogging, and even makes a half-hearted stab at religion. All to no avail. She could try drugs: "I wasn't meant to be unhappy," explains her sister. "My chemistry was a little out of whack, that's all." But, ultimately, some real change is called for.
Enter Gian Luigi, the novel's great catalyst. Gian Luigi and his wife, who appears to be modeled after Cruella DeVille, make a tawdry attempt at baby-snatching while Maggie's sister Lucy withers, post-labour, in hospital.
After Maggie kidnaps Lucy's first-born herself in an ill-conceived plot to save the child from the clutches of Gian Luigi and co., the narrative really chugs along as the reader finds himself wrenched away from the cozy patter of Giardini's prose into something more akin to a murder-mystery. The caper quickly expires though and Maggie finds herself shut away from polite society under house arrest. A confinement to the home (and perhaps to happiness) is the outcome of her wild lashing out against complacency.
Leashed to home, with hours of house-pacing at her disposal, Maggie feels the building has "like me, a history, an architecture, and, I like to think, a kind of soul."
We arrive at a provisional contentment for poor, haggard Maggie, as the curtains are drawn on this house/life/story. "I am no longer in pursuit of happiness," she discovers. The poet Anne Carson, giving one of her famous "short talks" on hedonism, declared that "Desires as round as peaches bloom in me all night, I no longer gather what falls." Emily Dickinson also knew the ache of desire: "Beauty crowds me till I die," she wrote. Why then would our desires so often inspire malcontent? Why would the happiness we seek remain so consistently elusive?
For Giardini, the answer appears to be a Buddhistic one, demanding a negation of the will-too high a price for Maggie Selgrin. The Sad Truth About Happiness, aside from being a pleasant and assured debut, is an open-ended launch for a literary career that might easily continue to marinate in the very real problem of "happiness". The novel does misstep at times, its plot grows unnecessarily slack, but the polish of Giardini's prose makes the prospect of a second novel enticing.

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