A debut by the eldest daughter of the late Carol Shields explores the ambitious theme of its title through the prism of a not terribly interesting single woman in Vancouver.
When 32-year-old Maggie tests out one of the self-help quizzes her roommate Rebecca designs for a living, the quiz concludes that, based on her ambivalent response to the question “Are you happy,” Maggie will die in three weeks. Easy-going Maggie loves her job giving mammograms, enjoys her apartment, goes hiking every weekend, has friends and seems pretty content, but the test results unsettle her. She stops sleeping, starts visiting a Catholic church and gradually morphs into someone who receives flattery and favors from everyone she meets. Soon, three men are vying for her attention: sexy fellow hiker Angus, courtly lawyer Charles and gentle do-gooder Leo. Meanwhile, Maggie’s neurotic younger sister Lucy has left her married lover in Italy and come home, pregnant, to become engaged to Ryan. Lucy’s and Maggie’s romantic entanglements generate minimal heat (can Canadian men be as bland as Giardino implies?). After Lucy delivers a baby boy, Maggie accidentally gives the details to Lucy’s Italian lover, who shows up with his wife to demand custody of his heir. Maggie steals the baby from the hospital and ends up hiding out in a French Canadian village near Montreal with a family of strong motherly women. While she and Rebecca are away, her apartment burns down—she’d have died if she’d been home (the prophecy fulfilled?). Maggie returns with the baby, whom Lucy gets to keep after a custody battle, pleads guilty of having taken the infant and gets a short term of house arrest but doesn’t lose her job. Charles dies suddenly of a heart attack, Leo heads to Kosovo and Maggie sees more of Angus.
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’.