There are many kinds of bad novels. There are those that are simply bad for me, those that are deliciously terrible, and those that are merely dull and purposeless, warranting a “why bother?” response. But perhaps the very worst of these is the novel that is disappointing, the novel that has that potential to be so brilliant, but simply is not.
Anne Giardini’s The Sad Truth About Happiness, I’m afraid, falls into this final category. It’s a literary fall from grace, a book that opens with elegant language and a thoughtful premise, and then madly leaps from the narrative cliff, hurling the bungee cord of its plot off into an abyss. Oh, little book, if I were your parent, I would be very disappointed in you for failing to live up to your potential.
Our protagonist Maggie is a thirty-something woman whose personal claim to fame has been her “contentedness”, her rock-like mildness against the blustering whims of her sisters Janet and Lucy and her vague and owlish parents. But when her flatmate has her undertake a magazine quiz to determine Maggie’s projected life expectancy, Maggie is astonished to find that it’s unlikely that she’ll live out the year. The reason being that contentment and happiness are not the same thing, and it’s the latter that is apparently linked to mortality.
It’s at this point that the book begins to crumble away beneath the weight of its identity crisis. Though its initial chapters seem to set it up as a quiet literary novel, this quiz business adds a sense of whimsy, or perhaps even magic realism, that feels utterly at odds with the tone thus far. Perhaps if the quiz and its mortality projections had been dealt with by Maggie and her flatmate with rather less credulity, the book might have regained its feet. As it is, however, it continues to descend into an awkward literary pubescence, courting many different identities in turn, and never finding one that quite suits.
Maggie’s quiz-predicted death apparently makes her irresistible to the opposite sex, and she finds herself wooed by several suitors in a way that’s almost reminiscent of a fairytale–and indeed, it’s almost possible that there is some sort of odd Goldilocks framework at play here. These interactions are intriguing in and of themselves, but fail to integrate properly into the main plot arc, which transforms into an utterly bizarre account of Maggie’s sister’s affair with a married Italian man, and then Maggie’s decision to kidnap the baby born from this union in order to prevent him from being taken back to Italy.
This truly strange turn of events takes up the remainder of the book, throwing a spanner of nonsensicality into the already rusty works, and we’re treated to odd missives about homeless girls, church windows, and the wonders of breastfeeding, all of which feel so out of place that you could can’t help but wonder whether halfway through writing this Giardini started mainlining old episodes of Gumby, along with Murakami’s back catalogue.
The writing, too, suffers along the way, and I’m quite sure that I could put together an equation correlating page count with the quality of writing. What begins as a somewhat self-conscious but still finely written prose style devolves into a mess of em-dashes, off-kilter reportage and needlessly repeated motifs. Take, for example, this ill-conceived reported speech: “Soon after the move to Rome, however, the bello Corrado took up with one of his models, a long-limbed young man from Palermo with skin, Lucy reported, the colour of burnt oatmeal and a dark head of fat, oiled curls.” Without the insertion of “Lucy reported” this sentence might have worked, but as it stands it feels painfully contrived and warrants questioning from the reader. Who on earth reports that someone has skin the colour of burnt oatmeal?
There are awkward introductions and re-introductions that should have been picked up in the editing stage, such as the several times that Maggie mentions her parents’ lack of religiosity, each time doing so as though it’s a novel concept to the reader; in addition, she twice introduces us to a former boyfriend called Chris Tolnoy with no acknowledgement of the first instance of his gracing the book’s pages. Towards the end of the book, too, we begin to see repeated phrases, such as the doubled-up description of a cat as being bird-like and downy. Perhaps it’s a mark of Maggie’s increasingly unhinged outlook, but I suspect that it’s more to do with the fact that this novel has leapt out of the author’s grasp.
I was profoundly disappointed by this novel, not simply because it wasn’t particularly good, but because it had the potential to be so very good. Perhaps Giardini’s sophomore effort will bring the goods.
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