STARRED REVIEW
May 2021

Secrets of Happiness

By Joan Silber
Review by
Rarely is a novel of moral ideas so buoyant in spirit or so exquisitely crafted.
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The challenges of balancing money and personal happiness wend their way through National Book Critics Circle Award winner Joan Silber’s Secrets of Happiness, which begins with a startling act of duplicity and ends with acceptance and reconciliation despite the characters’ changed circumstances.

The novel opens as Ethan, a gay lawyer in Manhattan, relates how his family was blown apart when his father, Gil, was named in a paternity suit by Nok, a woman he brought to New York from Thailand and with whom he had two sons. Gil’s wife, Abby, divorced him and journeyed to Bangkok to teach English, seeking serenity in the unfamiliar surroundings of Thailand, and Gil moved in with Nok after he had a debilitating stroke.

Meanwhile, Ethan’s new half brother, Joe, also travels to Thailand, hoping to bribe police to release his wastrel brother from prison. After Joe’s return to New York, he falls back into an awkward relationship with a high school girlfriend who was abruptly widowed and then swindled out of inheriting her husband’s estate by his greedy family.

The complex seesaw of love and finances, both offered and withheld, is explored throughout seven chapters and across four continents. Silber’s device—a secondary character from one chapter commanding the narrative in the next—is as effortless as a dragonfly skimming over a pond. The multiple perspectives bring an unexpected cohesion to the novel’s diverse cast, which includes Ethan’s boyfriend, who lives with his terminally ill former partner, and Gil’s old girlfriend, a free spirit who raises two daughters in Kathmandu, Nepal.

As more connections reveal themselves, the slim threads that bind these characters take on emotional weight, exposing the ways Gil’s infidelity has trickled out into the world. But Secrets of Happiness also explores the great generosity of love that exists in families, whether we’re born into them or choose them. Rarely is a novel of moral ideas so buoyant in spirit or so exquisitely crafted.

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Secrets of Happiness

Secrets of Happiness

By Joan Silber
Counterpoint
ISBN 9781640094451

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