With "The Sad Truth About Happiness" (Fourth Estate, 280 pp., $23.95), Anne Giardini, the daughter of author Carol Shields, has delivered...
With “The Sad Truth About Happiness” (Fourth Estate, 280 pp., $23.95), Anne Giardini, the daughter of author Carol Shields, has delivered two-thirds of a terrific debut novel.
Those first sections of the book delight in the ordinary ebb and flow of life in a West Coast city (Vancouver, B.C., where Giardini lives), and are quietly sharp on family rivalries and riddles of temperament.
Here’s a novel that, with low-key ease, catches the awkwardness of interviewing a potential roommate to share your flat with you. Here’s a book that’s alert to the difficulties of signaling to a man you’ve just met that you’d love to go out with him — but only if he can tear himself away from his obnoxious buddy.
Giardini’s characters read books, go for walks, attend gallery openings, are moved by choral concerts at the local church. They’re not particularly well-to-do, but they’re culturally curious, and for them the town around them is a kind of human candy box, offering such a bounty of possibilities that it’s difficult knowing what to choose.
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Anne Giardini will read from “The Sad Truth About Happiness” at 6 p.m., Thursday, at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com)
Giardini’s casual approach to this material gives “Sad Truth” its initial charm. It makes you realize how infrequently we read books about the liveliest aspects of city life. And for Seattle readers, the Vancouver setting, marvelously caught by Giardini, will be a special draw.
Those factors make it all the more puzzling when Giardini, somewhere around page 175, changes tactics and launches into not-quite-credible high drama.
Narrator Maggie Selgrin describes herself in the book’s opening lines: “In my family, which is middle-class, white, loving, and mildly claustrophobic, I was the child known for contentedness. A perfect middle child.”
Her sisters Janet and Lucy, by contrast, are more violent in temperament, leaving Maggie’s parents — middle children themselves, gifted with the mildest of emotional gamuts — baffled as to how they got two such tempestuous daughters.
Janet, mother of three, has recently reached an even keel with the help of antidepressants. But Lucy, just back from an adulterous affair in Italy, is pregnant — and hurrying into marriage with a Vancouver boy she doesn’t really love.
Maggie, for the moment, is single. Content with her hospital job (Giardini’s descriptions of the astonishing variety of breasts Maggie sees while administering mammograms is one of the novel’s high points), she’s out there dating, but no special sparks are flying.
At the same time, thanks to a friend’s recent move, she’s become the tenant of a lovely but pricey apartment, and must find a roommate. Enter Rebecca, who makes her living as a freelance compiler of quizzes for women’s magazines (“Rate Your Sense of Humor,” “Test Your Shopping Smarts”).
Her latest project is a longevity quiz which, when Maggie takes it, delivers a shocker. It says, preposterously, that she has only three months to live.
If Maggie could answer yes to the pivotal question — “Are you happy right now?” — she would live to 96, supposedly. But honest Maggie can’t help telling the truth. Is she happy? “Not completely.”
Does happiness make all the difference, then? What is happiness, if it can have such an influence on the length of your life? Is having an innately unruffled temperament a key ingredient of happiness? Or might Lucy and Janet, in their turmoil, be happier than they look?
“Sad Truth” seems set up perfectly to pursue these questions, using equal parts mind and heart to get at the answers. There’s also some suspense stemming from whether any of the several men in Maggie’s life might be right for her.
Instead, with a single rash act on Maggie’s part, Giardini suddenly opts for an action-filled plot twist — and we’re in a different book, one without the quiet humor or steady observing eye that enliven the earlier pages of “Sad Truth.”
The new Maggie is scarcely recognizable as the gal who describes herself as “practical, sensible, reliable, a realist.” The novel’s change of course is so abrupt, one wonders if someone told Giardini, “You need to have something happen here.”
No, no, no — through all the early chapters Giardini proves she’s one of those rare writers who can captivate you with scenes where nothing much happens at all. She has an eye for the drama in the ordinary. Here’s hoping she stays more true to it in her next book.