In Happiness for Beginners Katherine Center tackles the well-trod territory of a woman on the verge, but what matters is the telling and Center turns it into a fun, entertaining read that has a lot to say about our preconceived notions of others. And of ourselves.
Happiness for Beginners
by Katherine Center
[St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015]
Helen Carpenter, a prim, proper, orderly thirty-two-year-old teacher, has just suffered the worst year of her life: a strained relationship with her younger brother, an estrangement from her mother, a miscarriage and a divorce. Deciding that she needs to toughen up and make a radical break with her comfort zone, Helen signs up for a wilderness survival course in Wyoming. “The plan…was to drive out to Wyoming and have a brave adventure with a bunch of strangers that would totally change not just my life, but my entire personality. The plan was to set out alone into the world, conquer it, and return home a fiercer and more badass version of myself.”
Her younger brother’s best friend, Jake, has signed up for the same course and Helen reluctantly agrees to a cross-country carpool. A near-miss in a hotel room on the way to Wyoming complicates matters when Jake confesses a crush and Helen, against her better judgment, begins to fall for him. This survival course tests them both in ways neither had imagined, and they emerge on the other side changed but not necessarily in the ways they anticipated.
The characters in Happiness for Beginners (St. Martin’s Press; 2015) are diverse and sharply drawn. Helen is immensely likeable. Her reaction when she realizes that everyone else in the survival course, including the instructor, is college-age: “Where were the grown-ups? The guys having midlife crises? The stockbrokers with lumberjack fantasies? The carpool moms with something to prove to their personal trainers?” You will root for her and cheer each achievement and lament every setback. Center has a gift for snappy, engaging dialogue that frequently had me laughing aloud.
A typical exchange between Helen and Jake:
Helen: “You don’t know about wine.”
Jake: “I do. I took a class.”
I frowned at him. “Why?”
But then I figured it out, and just as he answered, I answered, too, and we said, in unison, “To get girls.”
“That’s right,” he said. “The same reason I learned to juggle. And took swing dancing lessons. And read The Beauty Myth.”
“You read The Beauty Myth to get girls?”
I put my hand over my eyes. “You used The Beauty Myth for evil?”
“Not for evil,” he said, looking over. “For good. A whole lot of good.”
The plot is well-constructed and impeccably paced. My only quibble with Happiness is the conclusion in which all conflicts are a little too neatly resolved, childhood traumas are alleviated, and everyone seems on the verge of happily ever after. On the other hand, the conclusion reflects the main theme of the book: it’s just as easy to see the bright side as the dark – our choice – and it’s not success or failure that’s important; it’s the trying. What makes you happy?
Michelle Newby is a Contributing Editor at Lone Star Literary Life, book reviewer for Foreword Reviews, freelance writer and blogger at www.TexasBookLover.com. Her reviews appear or are forthcoming in Pleiades Magazine, South85 Journal, The Review Review, Concho River Review, Monkeybicycle, Mosaic Literary Magazine, World Literature Today, Rain Taxi, Atticus Review, and The Collagist. She is a member of National Book Critics Circle. This article was previously published at Lone Star Literary Life.