The next time someone says to me that funny books are always disappointing because they’re funny-dumb, I’ll be pointing them to this novel: it’s funny-smart.
Happiness Economics opens with Will Thorne struggling with the idea of being a poet in a world which does not value poets.
Except that in Shari LaPeña’s second novel, the economic theme isn’t as heavy-handed as the language that I’ve used in that sentence.
“It was a crazy, mixed-up world, a world that took economic forecasters seriously — see everyone hang on his wife’s every word! — and sports figures, and movie stars.”
Poets deserve to be taken seriously, Will believes. Or, more accurately, Will thinks. Believes is a strong word for someone who spends an inordinate amount of time disbelieving.
“Would it be ennui today or despair?”
Will’s world is not as concrete as his wife’s.
Judy Thorne writes books too, books about investing, instant best-sellers written in a “chatty, informative, accessible” style, but she can measure her success in dollars and cents, in television appearances, in phone calls with influential contacts.
There is no outward measure of Will’s success.
He is an engaged father (mostly, except when we forgets to let the kids in for lunch because the ennui/despair is too overwhelming) and he has written some good poetry.
But there’s no Governor General’s Award to show for it. And when he proposed to Judy that he receive a wage for his childcare responsibilities, she made a counter-offer, a significantly lower figure.
And “[s]he had all her expertise as an economist behind her while he’d only had an article in Chatelaine.”
But even Judy — as great as she presents on camera — has concerns, even before the events of 2008 which seriously threatened her professional identity.
She is particularly concerned about her children, Alex and Zoe. (And these are not like sitcom kids: they are wholly believable.)
“They had everything. She didn’t know what to do about it, so most of the time she simply kept working and telling herself that they should be happy — they had everything.”
And, yet, her family is unhappy, her children in their tween/teen years struggling in the same way that Will is (although the kids are preoccupied with their own concerns and aren’t aware of the parallels).
Zoe “vaguely wished to be a pop star — she watched all the Idol shows — but she didn’t know anything about music, and now it seemed almost too late”.
Even at 12 years old, Zoe keeps her pop-star ambitions to herself, recognizing that artsy dreams are fragile, whereas Alex broadcasts his desire to be a police officer, a detective.
“‘Right,’ said Zoe. ‘There’s a fitness test, you know.'”
Catch a glimpse of the realistic dialogue there, also all the unstated eye-rolling: Zoe is at that age.
But, there is some truth beneath Zoe’s defensive barb; both Will and Judy are unsure whether the amount of sweets that Alex is eating will create a problem for him.
When tension at home increases — because there is conflict between Will and Judy, particularly as each feels their identity rocked by external events and internal fears — Alex reaches for a candy bar.
All of the characters in this novel have their own ways of coping with what lurks beneath the surfaces of their lives.
Sometimes the struggle is visible, even to casual onlookers; sometimes the veneer is solid.
Sometimes the choices appear minor, as in whether Zoe should be allowed to attend a Shopping Party for a class-mate’s birthday.
Rarely the issues are approached openly, philosophically: “When…does the end justify the means? And how do you measure the externalities, the collateral damage? What is life but the continuous exercise of moral choice?”
For that is the delight of this novel; after you have finished reading, it’s clear that the author has deliberately layered the theme throughout, but the reader is simply engaged in the story.
What is truly an obstacle, whether to progress or happiness? What does it mean if we, individually or nationally, decline to participate in a measure of well-being which values war over housing starts?
These are big questions. But in the course of reading Shari LaPeña’s novel, the reader simply hopes that someone will honk for the poet who is standing at the side of the parkway with a sign that reads “Honk if you love poetry.”
A novel that is wholly entertaining — there are some laugh-out-loud moments and countless smirky grins — and still leaves you with lots to think about? That’s good stuff.
A wholly entertaining novel that leaves you with something to believe in? That’s grand.
PS If it adds to the value of the book in your reader’s mind, Happiness Economics won the Stephen Leacock Medal for being hilarious.