When a man discovers his father in New York has long had another, secret, family—a wife and two kids—the interlocking fates of both families lead to surprise loyalties, love triangles, and a reservoir of inner strength.
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.
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.