Secrets of Happiness

Joan Silber

Secrets of Happiness
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Secrets of Happiness

Joan Silber

Ethan, a young lawyer in New York, learns that his father has long kept a second family - a Thai wife and two kids living in Queens. In the aftermath of this revelation, Ethan’s mother spends a year travelling abroad, returning much changed, just as her now ex-husband falls ill. Across town, Ethan’s half brothers are caught in their own complicated journeys: one brother’s penchant for minor delinquency has escalated and the other must travel to Bangkok to bail him out, while the bargains their mother struck about love and money continue to shape all their lives.

As Ethan finds himself caught in a love triangle of his own, the interwoven fates of these two households elegantly unfurl to touch many other figures, revealing secret currents of empathy and loyalty, the bounty of improvised families and the paradoxical ties that weave through life’s rich contours. With a generous and humane spirit, Secrets of Happiness elucidates the ways people marshal the resources at hand in an effort to find joy.


Admit it. You’re a little bit curious. If a book, fiction or otherwise, offers you the secrets of happiness you’d want to know what it’s selling. Equipped with such a tantalising title and fond respect for Joan Silber’s last novel, Improvement, I went into this one with the relish of anticipation.

The novel opens with Ethan, a young lawyer in New York, who learns that his dying father has a second family: a Thai wife and two sons he keeps hidden away in Queens. The subsequent chapters of the novel follow the lives of a whole cast of characters inextricably linked to these two families. Think Six Degrees of Ethan instead of Kevin Bacon. We meet Ethan’s half-brothers, his lovers, his mother, and a whole host of other characters orbiting each other in the same universe. Travelling across decades and continents, Silber’s novel beautifully explores the connection and bonds that compose humanity. Bonds that can be strong, broken, tenuous, or, even, invisible.

Secrets of Happiness comprises a series of interconnected short stories that are greater than the sum of their parts. There are rewards for the reader in every individual story, but the real satisfaction and pleasure comes in the connections threaded through these tales, visible solely to the reader. The closest comparison would be Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad or David Szalay’s All That Man Is. Silber’s latest work is equally entertaining although, I would argue, not quite as ambitious. It is a rewarding book but lacks a certain ineffable quality required to be transcendent. So what are the secrets of happiness? I certainly don’t know and I’m not sure Silber’s characters do either. This novel might not provide many answers but it does ask the right questions.

Tristen Brudy works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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