Writer confronts middle-aged angst while studying happiness, in a third by Grunwald (New Year’s Eve, 1997, etc.).
Sally Farber leads an enviable Manhattan life of letters. The mother of two well-behaved preteen daughters, she’s contentedly married to childhood sweetheart Michael, an earnest, dedicated doctor. But she’s blocked on The History of Happiness, the fourth in her series of concept books. Her writing-avoidance research into various felicity formulas derived from advertising, philosophy, laughter therapy, pop-psyche, Smiley Faces and Bobby McFerrin (mercifully sans singing fish) provides the struts for the slight plot of this engaging story. Sally is not always impervious to undermining by her needy, overprivileged girlfriend, T.J., an editor whose own maxim for bliss is: “I just had to do something for myself.” When Sally’s childhood apartment overlooking Central Park West is vacated by the death of a tenant, her elderly mother enlists her to prepare it for sale. Soon, her daughters head off to camp for two months, and Sally weathers her first experience with empty-nest syndrome. At the wedding of T.J.’s sister, Sally exchanges erotic sparks with lusty-for-life painter Lucas Ross. She takes Lucas up on his innuendos, and Mom’s apartment becomes the ideal trysting spot. Lucas increases property values by covering the bedroom’s floor and wall with his signature didactic friezes. The lovers share superior sex (and chocolate) and somehow miss colliding with T.J., who also has a key. But T.J. does succeed in enlisting Marathon Ross, Lucas’s X-ray wife, as a decorating consultant for the apartment, which leads to the premature and disappointing end. Grunwald’s prose is smooth, the dialogue between Sally and Lucas is deliciously trenchant. By contrast, Sally’s conversations with Michael are flat and opaque, belying her professed depth of feeling for him. Although not always relevant to the action, the segments on happiness are satisfying in an Alain de Botton sort of way. Book clubs will welcome the talking points.
Much too brief encounter with some very likable characters.