Friends, I have a piece of fiction to review for you today. And yeah I know this is posting on Sunday and I claim to plan book reviews for Saturdays, but, well, these days I do what I want. Let’s proceed.
A couple of weeks ago I craved a bit of summertime distraction served up on paper with ink, not electronics. Something I could drag out to the deck or even into the pool should the mood strike, as it often does. A quick trip to the Apartment book shelves produced exactly such a treasure, and one with an attractive jacket to boot.
Truth? I narrowed down my choices that day based first on titles and plot summaries then on book jackets. Because, as noted above, I do what I want. It’s a nice design, right? That old admonition says to not judge a book by its cover; it says nothing of initially selecting the book. Let’s never be ashamed of loving book art for the sake of book art.
Spoiler Alert: This design hints at stained glass, which plays an important role in the saga contained inside.
The Promise of Happiness by Justin Cartwright was published in 2005 to plenty of acclaim, though at that time I was deaf to it. In fact, how this novel landed on our Apartment book shelves I cannot even remember, but I am glad to have somehow received it and now am passing the book along to my friend Kate.
This book proved to be a nice, deep, cool-water summertime read. Not too difficult, not too scandalous, but still very adult. It immediately reminded me of a kinder, gentler Goldfinch because of the art discussions and partial location in New York City but without the pervasive depravity. Maybe just the hint of it. Neither sweeping epic nor paralyzing still life, The Promise of Happiness manages to span several decades while immersing the reader in moment after believable, relatable, seductive moment. The writing has weight and lightness all at once. An absolutely wonderful combination. It earns five of five stars if you appreciate language and prose as much as or more than a story worth recapping. Still, the story itself is pretty great. It’s a dressed up portrait of a snapshot, if that’s possible. A well told explanation of a moment in time for one English family, including just the right amount of historical flashbacks, for context.
I thoroughly enjoyed all of it. The characters, the meandering paths they take toward and away from each other, the primarily English seaside setting, the tasteful dabs of sex and scandal, the elastic timeline, all of it was fun to read. But what I loved most was the writing itself and the depth of human understanding it serves up. Cartwright spent a great deal of energy exploring deep layers of thought and introspection for each of the characters, the members of the Judd family. This end product was thought-provoking and comforting.
Cartwright trades narrative frequently and smoothly, dancing all over that elastic timeline with changing voices (the story belongs to the entire Judd family, not just one member), blending action and memory even within the same paragraph without sounding unnatural. It is a pleasure to read. He also achieves seamlessly what so many writers struggle to do, often with stilted effect: He tells what is happening and pairs it with the deeper meaning. He offers the action along with the echo. And it never feels forced. It is, page after page, really satisfying to read:
She feels a rush of affection for her mother, who sat in the court dutifully and visited that hellhole of a prison, and suffered as she waited in the contact reception with people so strange to her they might really have come from another universe. Their bodies twisted with agony. And now she’s planning the wedding. The flowers are going to perfume what has gone before.
Do you ever read a story and choose a favorite character, or feel that the author is urging you to choose a certain one as your favorite? I do, and I did with this book too. But the story evolved in surprising ways and I wound up changing my opinions by the end. In fact at a certain point I had to suspend all kinds of judgements. Very much like in real life. Anyway. The characters are well constructed, mightily nourished by life experiences, and so real I could smell their perfume or guess their clothing by about midway through the book. Good stuff.
Let’s mention once more stained glass art as an engine for the story. It provides both the backdrop and the catalyst for so much, first of all; but it also becomes a vivid metaphor for the Judd family’s history: Brokenness, light, imitation, strength and fragility, the quality of change with the passage of time, prophecy fulfilled, hope justified, all of it. Art as a spiritual experience and family life as a human experience are the same thing here.
And then there is, as always, the power of the mind:
And now, because there is, as she has discovered, only a light mist settled between the real and the imagined, she is free at last. She’s wearing her spotted shorts, and it’s this sentimental detail that is so convincing.
I had never heard of Justin Cartwright before reading The Promise of Happiness, but after enjoying his writing style so much I will now be looking for more of his work. Really nice, friends. I hope you find this and give it some attention. If you do, let’s chat! I have so much to think-out-loud-about regarding the art metaphor and the complicated nature of a long-term marriage, keeping a family, etcetera.
You know, life.
Thanks as always for stopping by, friends! What’s on your night stand lately? Or what do you drag outside to the pool?
“Dad doesn’t want to be happy, Soph.
There are some people who don’t believe
in the promise of happiness.”
~Charlie Judd in The Promise of Happiness,