Synopses & Reviews
A beautiful and affecting novel bittersweet and comic on the elusive nature of happiness.
Maggie is in her early thirties, gainfully employed, between relationships, and ready for change although not in the ways or to the degree that unfolds in Anne Giardini's The Sad Truth About Happiness.
Maggie's roommate, Rebecca, devises questionnaires for women's magazines, and she is convinced her newest quiz can predict the exact date of death of anyone who answers the questions honestly. When Maggie tries the test, she learns that she is scheduled to die before her next birthday the fact that she has answered "No" to the question "Are you happy?" appears to have shaved decades off her life. Only if Maggie can become happy in her three remaining months can she perhaps prevent the prediction from coming true.
With wry comedy, Maggie's life becomes considerably more complicated from that very moment, since her quest for happiness attracts both admirers and challenges. The true test comes when, through a mad tangle of circumstance, Maggie finds herself on the run with her sister Lucy's newborn son. The often unexpected power of friendships and family, the universal pull toward a home, and a more intense relationship with the world all leave Maggie and the reader with a new awareness of the evanescent joys of happiness, which we all long for, but can seldom seek directly or hold for longer than an instant.
"This charming though overwritten debut from novelist Carol Shields's
eldest daughter hinges on the sympathetic protagonist's realization that she is 'not completely' happy, an insight that surprises her when a magazine quiz devised to predict longevity calculates that she has but three months to live. Thirty-something Maggie Selgrin, an unmarried radiation technologist in a Vancouver hospital, has always been the even-tempered middle daughter in a remarkably wholesome family. Despite her professional stability, solid friendships and close family, the quiz triggers her admission of discontent. Not only does she ache for romance (she links joy with the idea of a relationship), but she realizes she has always subsumed her needs to those of her more temperamental sisters. Maggie flounders and fumbles to regain her emotional footing before no less than three men enliven her static existence and she becomes embroiled in the kidnapping of her sister Lucy's baby. Giardini's meditative, hyper-descriptive prose can bog down the plot, but readers will surely relate to her likable heroine. And if the story offers no novel lessons about life, love or the pursuit of happiness ('Happiness evades capture, dissolving like a melody into the air, eluding even the most delicate, careful grasp'), it does provide a pleasantly entertaining journey. (May)
" Publishers Weekly
(Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Richly reflective, this debut novel by the daughter of Carol Shields explores Maggie's world as she seeks the solution to that unanswerable question of what or how happiness is defined and achieved in one's lifetime." Booklist
"For all the plot events, the story feels scattershot. A more serious problem is that, for all the musing about happiness and loss, the characters' emotions never rise above the tepid. Neither will readers'." Kirkus Reviews
"This first novel may remind us of works by the author's mother, Carol Shields
, in its sensitive handling of rich characters and domestic detail. A touching and satisfying read..." Library Journal
The daughter of beloved novelist Carol Shields
(The Stone Diaries
) delivers her first novel a bittersweet and comic story on the unexpected power of friendships and family, and the rewards of a more intense relationship with the world.
About the Author
Anne Giardini is a lawyer and mother of three. She has written and published essays, stories, and articles on many topics and was for three years a columnist for the National Post, one of Canada's national newspapers.
What inspired you to write The Sad Truth About Happiness? As I read the book on the train, or other public places, I found out that people are remarkably intrigued by the title where does it come from, or how did it occur to you?
I have heard it said that a writer writes to find out what she thinks. I started this novel knowing deeply that there was a sad truth about happiness, but I didn't know what it was. So I began from the title and wrote from there. I have been surprised by how often people have thought that this must be a self-help book. Perhaps in a way it is, in the sense that all novels are self-help books. They help us to understand the world and other people and lead to greater understanding of ourselves and our role in the world.
As a talented writer, and the daughter of an acclaimed author, how did you decide to become a lawyer? Were you drawn by something akin to what Maggie feels about her job?
Absolutely. I have always loved solving problems, and I have a terror of pure theory, of thoughts drifting in the air. For me, ideas and solutions have to be rooted in the world and in how people really are. I fell hard for law right from the start in part because the law can be broken down into narratives of conflict and resolution, into experiments with rules, into stories of human interaction. Among my greatest joy is hearing the story of how a problem or difficulty came to be, and then working to lead it toward a satisfactory conclusion. This is as it happens not entirely unlike plotting a novel.
If you could have one, perfect, blissful day, what would it be like?
I am almost embarrassed to admit that it would start with a cup of tea and a stack of work, and end with a glass of wine at home with my husband and children. Somewhere in the day would be at least a solid half hour of talk with one or more good friends, and an hour with a good book. Based on these criteria, almost all of my days are perfect and blissful.
Some reviewers noted parallels between The Sad Truth About Happiness, and Unless, your mother, Carol Shield's, last work. The Guardian UK said, "it is tempting to read The Sad Truth About Happiness as a continuing dialogue between mother and daughter." Would you agree with that statement? How should the reader view the allusions to Unless in this novel?
The books can be read as a continuing dialogue because they both arose out of many deep conversations I had with my mother about the kinds of themes that appear in both books. Some of the themes that feed both books were in a piece I wrote called "Still Life with Power" in a book of essays called Dropped Threads that was edited by my mother and Marjorie Anderson and was published in 2001. But there are few allusions to Unless in The Sad Truth About Happiness. I had done much of the plotting and writing of The Sad Truth About Happiness before Unless was published, and my mother didn't have the chance to read my book before she died.
Who, would you consider, are the greatest influences on your writing? Are you working on another novel? Could you tell us a little bit about it?
I think it is inescapable that my mother is the greatest influence on my writing. Reading her is like drinking water transparent, restorative, and essential. Other writers I read voraciously include Virginia Woolf, Alice Munro, Muriel Spark, Nicholson Baker, Barbara Pym, and John Updike.
I am somewhat alarmed to find myself working on two novels at the same time. Pretty soon, I will have to choose between them. The first is called Nicolo Picolo, and it is about an Italian-Canadian man and it is on the theme of the getting and giving of advice. The other, with the title Human, Natural, Divine, is about the loss of a mother, and how she goes on influencing the lives of her children.