Holly Frick is convinced she’s still in love with her ex-husband, a year later. Her career is heading downhill, as is that of her writing partner, after she published a novel that did very poorly. Perhaps what’s worst is that Holly has begun sleeping with a 22-year-old and isn’t sure where she is going in life. Her friends even act mysteriously, so that Holly is frustrated by their inability to behave the way she believes they should. She is unhappy, and so are all of the other characters in this charming, short novel about the quest to find that elusive something to brighten up life beyond the mundane.
Sarah Dunn conveys the humanity of her characters to an almost alarmingly perfect degree. They are all searching for something to make them happy, but they go about this in typical human ways which generally backfire. For example, Holly’s friend Amanda, easily the most frustrating character in the entire book, is dissatisfied in her marriage and expresses that dissatisfaction by having an affair, even if she doesn’t realize what she’s doing until afterwards. This seems to me to be such a passive-aggressive way to attempt to sabotage a marriage, and isn’t something I would do, but is in fact something that I have witnessed plenty of men and women engaging in to end a relationship without actually confronting what’s gone wrong. Frustrating, but true.
Similarly, Holly is her own worst enemy when it comes to happiness, but is simultaneously so wonderful and sweet that it’s impossible not to love her as a character. She adopts a dog with cancer just because she had already told him she was taking him home, even when she knows it will probably lead to expensive medical bills and the loss of the pet she already loves. She has an affair with a 22 year old who seems to be in love with her rather than considering men who might be in any way like her ex-husband. And she is surrounded by characters who equally sabotage themselves because they are innately human and as a result, damaged and confused.
All of this is compounded by Sarah Dunn’s lovely writing and clever wit. I read this on a plane and I just know the woman sitting next to me was probably wondering why I was smirking so much, but I couldn’t keep a straight face for much of the time. And the ending had me grinning like a loon because it was very hopeful and sweet.
The book, however, is not exactly perfect. I do think there were too many characters; Holly’s previous ex and his fiancee could probably have been cut out without much loss, and overall the book spent too much time away from Holly. She’s the focus of the narrative, but the various strands of the book don’t pull together as well as they could. Even though I was enjoying it, I didn’t have a problem putting the book down to watch a movie, as the plot was somewhat slow and didn’t compel me to constantly keep reading. I loved the characters, but I couldn’t usually understand their motivations and so I only related to them tangentially.
I do think, however, that Secrets to Happiness is a hugely enjoyable book, and would probably appeal most to the women’s fiction crowd. It’s a light read, but it still left me thinking about the definition of happiness and the many ways in which we prevent ourselves from attaining it.