Secrets of Happiness looks like a series of linked stories, but it’s more like a roulette wheel in print: Each chapter spins to some other character in a large circle of possibilities. It takes only a moment to get your bearings, and the disappointment of leaving one narrator behind is instantly replaced by the delight of meeting a new one ... These stories unfurl with such verbal verisimilitude that they’re like late-night phone calls from old friends. Every imperative page trips along with the wry wisdom of ordinary speech — the illusion of artlessness that only the most artful writers can create ... One senses throughout this novel that Silber knows something crucial about the secrets of happiness.
Her most interesting characters are alert to the main chance, nursing various degrees of larceny in their hearts; while the more sympathetic—if less interesting—ones have grasped the paltriness of a life dedicated to getting and spending. In the seven artfully linked stories of Ms. Silber’s new novel...we find both types, but once again those who display the will to be canny, which money in the offing or in the pocket seems to confer, are the most deeply penetrated and superbly conjured ... Each of the seven sections engages our interest right off the bat; each has a first sentence pregnant with promise ... Having seized our attention, Ms. Silber pushes forward into her characters’ stories, summing up in fleet, fluid prose the circumstances and acts that have shaped their lives to this point, then slipping deftly into further events where, for better or worse, the gravitational force of money can be felt ... Despite their unity of theme, Ms. Silber’s stories are the furthest thing from didactic ... they are rich with the complexities of life; the characters’ motives and their decisions arise out of personalities meeting circumstance. Further, the stories create a world made fully dimensional through changes of perspective—major characters appear and reappear as part of one or another’s experience and testimony ... It is a fine thing, subtly done, and truly exhilarating.
Silber’s knack for inhabiting far-flung realities is remarkable. She doesn’t use spelling tricks to evoke dialects or regional accents as her narrators reveal what it’s like to grow up half-Thai in Queens, do garment union work in Phnom Penh, or work on a textile industry documentary in London. Instead, her handling of her characters’ diverse manners of speech is self-effacingly spare ... The book’s narrative suspense increases with the arrival of each new narrator (there are six altogether) ... Silber’s prose is so efficiently distilled that it occasionally feels overly abrupt. Still, the swift way she moves through tricky states of mind can be exquisite ... Secrets of Happiness pays the best kind of attention to its characters’ desires, dilemmas and, of course, connections.
... exceptional ... The push and pull of commerce and love plays out in other family disasters throughout Secrets of Happiness, each chapter so well constructed and compelling it could stand as a separate story ... The easy, uncluttered prose reveals the connections between characters without artifice, and Silber can't resist highlighting life's paradoxes ... Silber also wields a deliberate dry humor[.]
This is a signature style — the Silber structure. Call it the relay narrative: In book after book, Silber gets things up and running with one character, telling his or her story to its fullest, before leaping into a wholly different life and telling all about it. These narratives are often richly rewarding on their own, but more sublime is what can fall out between any two accounts: some devastating misunderstanding or easily missed opportunity that, heartbreaking as it might be for the characters, rewards the reader with a rare, delectable irony ... Silber illuminates those invisible fissures and inexplicable distances that we sense, however dimly, make up our shared lives with others as much as our formal connections and open battles ... Roundedness is what Silber is after, the insight that comes with a change in perspective, a god’s point of view. I never wonder more at how little we know about how greatly we factor in other people’s lives than I do when reading Silber at her best. She aims, in increments, at the ecstatic ... shows what happens when the Silber structure is spread too thin, its linked characters imperfectly calibrated. There is enough revelation, and resolution, to fill an entire novel in Ethan’s chapter as his father’s double life comes to light; but Joe’s narrative fails to engage with Ethan’s, to qualify or repudiate it. We never learn what Joe knows of Ethan, or what he thinks of him and the father they share, or what differences in background and upbringing the two had and how Joe feels about that. Embittering distances are never measured, destroying depths rarely plumbed ... The narrative strands attenuate and lose sight of a satisfying whole ... rouses but never roars ... What are the secrets of happiness? Money? Renunciation? Duty and loyalty and love? Lacking a strong point of view, Silber offers up each possibility in its turn, but they, too, fade away ... Capable of ecstasy, this time Silber delivers merely something humane, elegant and wise.
... classic Joan Silber ... Silber’s effortless dissemination of facts in narrative is always impressive because her characters are so engaging and believable. Ethan, a diehard romantic but also a lawyer, has a great wry voice in dialogue with Abby, who teaches middle-school English in the Bronx and begins to travel the world alone ... The tender care provided by Ethan for Saul and the memories of all the men lost to AIDS were for me the pulsing heart of the book.
The humor in award-winning writer Joan Silber's new novel, Secrets of Happiness, is more subdued; it's rueful rather than charming ... expansive and elegantly crafted ... Silber begins handing off the story, chapter by chapter, to other narrators, among them Ethan's newly-discovered half-brothers, the ex-girlfriend of one of those half-brothers, and Ethan's fickle present lover's former lover. It's not like everyone knows each other, but they're connected in some cosmic way, almost like a horizontal extended family tree that can only be observed from space.
Few make fiction feel as exciting as Joan Silber — and not in plot, but mere structure. Characters impact one another. Tones shift with perspective. Scenes build with profound scope. Off her award-winning Improvement, this latest novel feels like vintage Silber: stories interlinked with the confidence of Elizabeth Strout, but all their own in mood and power ... This, Silber shows again and again, is how it's done.
Ethan’s ability to see his father in the round, to recognize the difficulty of his experience, to forgive a flawed human being in a radical act of sympathy, epitomizes Silber’s stance throughout the book. As she gives us narrators ranging from one of Nok’s sons to the spurned lover of a married man, from the radical, questing son of arch-conservative parents to a documentary filmmaker raised in Nepal and Berkeley, she explores the difficult act of self-fashioning in the face of financial obstacles, racism, illness, mortality, familial pressures, and obligations. Her characters steal, cheat, and lie, they fall into addiction and give in to destructive anger, but they are never reduced to cartoons or stereotypes ... Charles Dickens, whose novels are mentioned several times by narrators, hovers as a kind of tutelary spirit over the book. Wealth, class, inheritance—the main Dickensian themes are Silber’s too ... These are recognizable people, stepping out from the ruins of their lives, who have been bent and broken, but perhaps into a better shape.
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 ... 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.
Joan Silber is a painstaking observer of how lives touch each other across social divisions ... Silber can capture the weight and texture of years in just a couple of piercing lines. There's nothing didactic in Silber's portrayal of contemporary lives shaped by financial considerations—a master storyteller, she lets persuasive offhand detail accumulate over the course of the novel, making the case by holding a mirror to life ... Despite the deceptively straightforward prose, Secrets of Happiness can be dizzying as it spins its connections and themes ... In telling or hearing or reading those stories, we find life's shape, maybe even hints at its meaning.
What the six intertwining stories lack in distinctive voices they make up for in frankness and complexity, as each character reckons with the insidious influence of money on his or her lives and struggles to find success, fulfillment, and love.
Silber unspools a web of lovers, siblings, parents, and children, from Greenwich Village to Bangkok, whose searches for fulfillment ripple outward in unexpected ways ... Silber moves easily in and out of her characters’ heads; the novel is deceptively airy, yet, given a reflective reading, it has an ethical center without the shortcut of easy morality ... Silber’s fans, and readers who enjoy smart, humane contemporary fiction that doesn’t talk down to them, will enjoy this work.
A new novel in stories from the master of the form ... echoes the great Grace Paley, to whom Silber is so close in spirit and voice. While Paley was an all–New York gal, Silber makes faraway places seem familiar—oh, for the time when we can work on knowing the world even one-tenth as well as she does. These secrets of happiness really will make you happy, at least for a few sweet hours.
A crushing indiscretion comes to light in the sharp latest from National Book Critics Circle Award winner Silber ... The situation’s emotional complexity unfolds and expands through accounts from a diverse range of interconnected narrators, juggled by Silber with uncanny dexterity ... As more layers peel away across continents, the fallout of Gil’s affair trickles down through Silber’s intricate and emotionally elaborate study of emotional ties. This mesmerizing story of love, lies, and the consequences of betrayal brims with heart and intelligence.