I have never been one to claim that I know the secret to happiness – but throughout the pandemic year, I found myself wanting more than ever before to be happy. What would it take, I asked myself at different times during a year spent mostly at home with my immediate family, to be happy exactly where I was, no matter the circumstances?
I think I got closer to my answer than I expected. For me, the secret to happiness is a weave of well-worn threads: decent coffee; challenging work; good stories to listen to, read, or watch; the warmth of my daughter’s hand; the sound of my husband’s breathing as I fall asleep; socks that aren’t too tight and don’t itch. Little things and bigger things, and thanks to the past year, I don’t take any of them for granted.
That’s why I couldn’t help reaching for Joan Silber’s newest book, Secrets of Happiness, based on the title alone. I really like Silber’s writing – Improvement was captivating and so was Secrets, interconnected stories about well-drawn characters who each come to understand better not only what makes them happy, but also who they are and what they really care about.
There is Ethan, the son of a man who travels to Asia for work and brings home more than silk scarves and pearl necklaces — he also brings home and keeps secret a Thai wife named Nok with whom he has a second family. Ethan grows up going to his father’s favorite Thai restaurant in Queens, where his father has a friendly banter with the hostess. She is, of course, the “other woman” — but no one knows it until she names him in a paternity suit.
Ethan’s mother, Abby, thinks she’s lost her mind when she learns about her husband’s deception. Then, she accepts the truth and gets on with her life, traveling to Asia and finding her own secret to happiness. When her ex-husband is dying of cancer, she visits him at Nok’s house. The two women do what they can for the man they each loved.
This opening story sets the stage for all of the subsequent chapters, each of which features a character related in some way to the original story. Silber is a master of dialogue and setting, evoking the specificity of individual people’s lives in such deft moves that as the reader, you can easily forget that you aren’t actually flipping through a photo album.
Silber introduces us to Nok’s son Joe, as well as his high school girlfriend, Veronica, as well as Veronica’s husband’s English lover, Maribel. Like a matryoshka doll of nested worlds, Silber’s chapters snap together into a narrative whole that not only fills readers with connected sympathy, but also suggests a whole new set of ideas about happiness. Ultimately, it seems, the potential for happiness is present in every moment, and up to each of us to discern it, despite its inherent secrecy.