One-Minute Book Reviews

November 27, 2009

Not Written in Lipstick – Sarah Dunn’s Novel ‘Secrets to Happiness’

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A search-and-rescue mission for single New Yorkers and their dogs

Secrets to Happiness: A Novel. By Sarah Dunn. Little, Brown, 277 pp., $23.99.

By Janice Harayda

Sarah Dunn is that rarity among comic novelists — a moralist in the best sense of the word. She doesn’t preach or lecture. But her heroines have a solid moral core left over from the strict Christian upbringing they have rejected. They struggle to do the right thing even as friends are cheating on their partners or trolling for casual sex on LukesPlace, a site similar to Craigslist in Secrets to Happiness. If Dunn’s heroines fall for faithless men, it isn’t because these women are vapid or silly – it’s because they are confused. They don’t know how to reconcile their early lessons with those of the age of Sex and the City, when their peers deal with moral questions by handing them off to psychiatrists or blocking them out with drugs from a pharmacy in St. Kitts.

“It never ceased to amaze Holly, how therapists managed to spin things,” Dunn writes of her main character. After years in Manhattan, Holly suspected that psychotherapy aimed to make it possible for people “to do whatever they wanted to do, with whomever they wanted to do it, when and where and however they felt like it, while reaping no negative emotional consequences whatsoever.”

That passage alone might lift Secrets to Happiness above most novels about single New Yorkers, in which few plot devices are more clichéd than an emotionally gimpy heroine’s visit to a therapist whose banalities help her find love. But the book has much more going for it than that. This is a novel about the related questions: What is the cost of being emotionally abandoned? And when do you give up the fantasy that you can rescue a relationship?

Holly Frick thinks she still loves a husband who has left her when, in her mid-30s, she faces other swiftly arriving changes: She adopts a dog with brain cancer, becomes involved with a 22-year-old man, and learns that her married best friend is having an affair. She must also persuade her gay script-writing partner to do his share of the work for an afternoon TV show now that her masochistically titled novel, Hello, Mr. Heartache, is tanking at bookstores. Part of the suspense comes from whether Holly will stick with her canine and human companions or will abandon them as her husband has abandoned her.

Dunn doesn’t develop this plot quite as well as she did that of her first novel, The Big Love, which has no relation to the HBO series. Much of the charm of that book came from the quirky first-person narration of its heroine, a Philadelphia magazine writer. Dunn uses shifting third-person viewpoints in her new novel, and though she handles them well, the device leaves the book softer at its center. Holly is its emotional and moral anchor, and the omniscient narration dilutes her impact.

So the pleasure of reading Secrets to Happiness comes less from its plot than from Dunn’s sophisticated wit, social commentary, and sharp eye for how single people of both sexes rationalize their actions. The novel abounds with lines that are amusing or perceptive or both. One involves the its Craigslist-surrogate: “The thing Leonard liked about LukesPlace was that you didn’t have to be altogether on your game and yet you could still have sex with perfect strangers.” When a man asks Holly if she wrote “chick lit,” she responds, “I wrote the entire thing in lipstick, actually.” No one should confuse Secrets to Happiness with a book that might as well be sold at cosmetics counters.

Best line: “Betsy Silverstein was only half Jewish, but with Betsy, half was plenty.”

Worst line: “She pressed on like a trooper.” The word is “trouper.”

Recommended if … you’ve wonder, “Where are the novels about single women that aren’t mainly about shoes?” (though The Big Love offers a better introduction to Dunn’s work).

Published: March 2009

About the author: Dunn has written for Murphy Brown and other television shows. A post about The Big Love appeared on this site on Feb. 14, 2007.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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