Synopses & Reviews
A simple woman looks back on her harsh life with extraordinary insight and unexpected joy
At the opening of My Happy Life, the unnamed narrator of this bittersweet fictional memoir has been abandoned in a locked room of a defunct hospital for the mentally ill. She hasn't seen the nice man who brings her food in days; she's eaten the soap and the toothpaste; she tried to eat the plaster on her walls, a dietary adventure that ended none too well. And yet, curiously, the narrator is happy. Despite a lifetime of neglect, physical abuse, and loss, she's incapable of perceiving slight or injury. She has infinite faith in the goodwill of others, loves even her enemies, and finds grace and communion in places most people wouldn't dare to look. By stepping outside her meager circumstances, she's able to live each moment as though it were her last with gratitude, longing, and delight.
Readers will be unable to put down Lydia Millet's impressive, original foray into serious literary fiction.
"Occasionally a book comes along that is truly written (as writers are instructed books should be) as if it were the writer's last: Millet's sad and infinitely touching third novel (after the absurdist George Bush, Dark Prince of Love) is such an extraordinary work. Brief and unsparingly forthright, the story is told from the miraculously cheerful perspective of a battered, neglected, friendless woman who is locked inside a windowless madhouse cell. The institution is apparently scheduled for demolition; the narrator's last caretaker, Jim, has not returned to feed her in some time. All she possesses are a few broken-down items she carries with her everywhere and that tell her "happy life" story: a cardboard box labeled Brown Ladies Narrow 8, in which she was left at a foundling home as an infant; a broken tooth from habitual pummelings she incurred as a "meat sandwich" at the hands of her fellow orphans; a frayed orange towel she used to sleep in, in parks; and, most horribly, a torn corner of one of the bills that were left to her by a rich older man who locked her away, beat her regularly with a "historical instrument" and later stole her baby. Despite the ghastly physical scars the narrator bears from neglect and abuse at others' hands, she's prone to forgive human harshness as people's inability "to know their own strength." Most incredibly, Millet has managed a few light-handed, affecting strokes to give her narrator charm and even humor ("Excuse me," she says when brutally overcome). The details of her fabulous, tortured life are precise and quirky, and she is always allowed to tell her story in her own childlike way to startling ironic effect in a novel that stands as a courageous and memorable achievement." Publishers Weekly
"In this slim volume, Lydia Millet portrays a nameless character with a haunting voice. The novel is written as a memoir scribbled on the walls of the character's locked room in a dilapidated hospital for the mentally ill. The hospital closes, leaving her trapped inside. However, she is not angry. She says, 'The door is locked from the outside; they went away and forgot me. It is not difficult: many times I have almost forgotten myself.' Is the protagonist mentally disabled? Mentally ill? Perhaps she is merely exhausted and damaged by the years of abuse and neglect. Her childhood is spent being pummeled by a fellow orphan, verbally abused by her caretakers, and sexually abused by others, including a priest and a wealthy businessman. Her history is frightful and shocking. This story should not be read by the faint of heart. Yet, without being sentimental or maudlin, Millet manages to create a character who is not embittered, who instead is eerily optimistic in the face of excruciating grief and loss." Reviewed by Andrew Witmer, Virginia Quarterly Review (Copyright 2006 Virginia Quarterly Review)
"Millet's shocking yet poetic tale of survival in a cruel world, enlightenment, and transcendence will rock readers to their very core." Booklist
"Overall, the story is terribly grim, and the narrator's simplistic, childlike wonder offers so little depth that the reader is left wondering whether, in the end, her suffering has had any meaning." Library Journal
"In its quirky, ethereal way, My Happy Life suggests that isolation can feed the imagination and nudges at the notion of how little a human being needs to thrive." The Village Voice
About the Author
Lydia Millet is the author of two previous novels, Omnivores and George Bush, Dark Prince of Love. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, and New York City.