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Something Like Happy

Review

Something Like Happy

Life, it sometimes seems, is the enemy of happiness. That’s certainly how it appears to Annie Hebden, the miserable, thirty-something protagonist of Eva Woods’ SOMETHING LIKE HAPPY. Over the past few years, Annie has lost her child, her husband, her friends and her beloved home. Now, her mother is losing her mind, as Alzheimer’s disease chips away at her memories and personality.

When we meet Annie, she’s in the middle of one of those mind-numbingly exasperating negotiations with an impenetrable bureaucracy --- here an indifferent receptionist at the London hospital where her mother is a patient. Annie’s pleas for help go ignored until a quirky, perky woman dressed “in all shades of the rainbow” intercedes on her behalf. That’s how she meets Polly, a young woman with a brain tumor and just three months to live.

Rather than crumpling in the face of her diagnosis, Polly has decided to meet death with a smile. Determined to make the most of what little time she has left, she’s embarked on the 100 Happy Days project, “one of those viral internet thingies” where “you’re just meant to do one thing every day that makes you happy.”

"...an uplifting yet never saccharine novel that makes a convincing case for finding joy even in the bleakest of circumstances."

Polly, after quickly sussing out that Annie is “the complete opposite of happy,” enlists her as a friend and co-conspirator in the project. Annie, understandably, is reluctant to engage. She takes a grim kind of comfort in her misery and is hesitant to give it up. But the indefatigable Polly is not easily dissuaded, and soon she’s wormed her way into Annie’s life, forcing her out of her comfort zone (through antics like dancing in public fountains) and encouraging her to confront her past (by engineering a meeting with an ex-friend, among other boundary-crossing moves).

With Polly’s help, Annie gradually starts to shed her dour attitude. But as she takes tentative steps toward happiness, things get increasingly grim for her new friend. Polly’s intoxicating zeal for life masks her own fears and troubles, which become more apparent as the novel progresses. While it’s clear from the opening pages that Polly’s disease is terminal, that doesn’t make its eventual conclusion any less devastating, either for the book’s characters or its readers.

Despite the grim subject matter, Woods’ book --- her American debut --- is charming and funny. She has an ear for dialogue and a talent for zeroing in on the specific, minor miseries of modern life, like the boss who thinks Annie doesn’t smile enough or the co-worker who polices her comings and goings from the office. Though SOMETHING LIKE HAPPY is somewhat overloaded with misery (various characters must also deal with absent dads, abusive boyfriends and cheating husbands, among other issues), Woods’ light touch keeps things from sinking under their own weight.

The result is an uplifting yet never saccharine novel that makes a convincing case for finding joy even in the bleakest of circumstances. Annie learns that she can mourn for the life she’s lost even while looking to a more hopeful future. Polly’s #100HappyDays project won’t cure her illness, but it does make her last days (and those of her friends and family) more joyful.

Cynics might dismiss the idea that intentionally embracing happiness can make someone’s life better as the worst kind of magical thinking. On the surface, it does seem like the sort of annoying, positive-thinking claptrap that ends up blaming victims for the misfortunes that befall them. Wisely, Woods steers clear of such a message. But through her characters, she does make the case that happiness is something we can all achieve, even in the face of tragedy. Celebrating the good in life, no matter how small or silly, won’t make the bad things disappear, but it can make them a bit more bearable.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on September 7, 2017

Something Like Happy
by Eva Woods

  • Publication Date: September 5, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Graydon House
  • ISBN-10: 1525811355
  • ISBN-13: 9781525811357