Cold Comfort

Contending with inexplicable tragedy

The novel Happy Now? by Katherine Shonk (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25) is a compelling exploration of a young woman’s response to her husband’s suicide.

For their first wedding anniversary, 36-year-old Claire Kessler created a painting for her husband, hoping to “tell him a story about their marriage:” “glossy contentment on the surface, with something darker and sadder underneath.” Beginning with a sepia-toned image of an old record store, she sealed the first layer of paint with clear lacquer, then covered it with a picture of a flower shop to suggest a fantasy of the world as “a peaceful, sunny place where people wanted for nothing.”

Yet the Chicago that serves as the backdrop for Katherine Shonk’s short, piercing first novel, Happy Now?, is anything but “a peaceful, sunny place.” Not long after their first anniversary, Jay jumped to his death at a Valentine’s Day party. The novel begins as Claire moves into her pregnant sister’s guesthouse to grieve, to escape, and ultimately to begin to heal. Snow shrouds the ground and clouds the air during the month or so of the novel’s main action; in the flashbacks that fill in the backstory, it is also often cold and snowy. A muffled chill permeates every aspect of Claire’s tale. Communication, even between intimates, is halting and frozen; emotion struggles to surface in this world that offers little assurance of safety or warmth. And the process of layering (or is it hiding?) — covering one reality with another — is a central aspect of Claire’s life as an artist and as a daughter, sister, friend, and spouse.

Claire is a disturbingly familiar contemporary character, a competent, independent woman with a successful career who, at 31, had never had a relationship that lasted more than a year. After three years of valiantly trying JDate and eHarmony and even speed dating, she met Jay, an “odd, ardent, open” man who quickly fell in love with her and whom she allowed herself to love as well. Although Jay was frequently paralyzed by disturbing periods of depression, Claire married him in the belief that what she called his “spells” would somehow abate.

Perhaps because Claire never fully understands Jay, the reader, too, is baffled by his character. What was the source of his depression? Why did he choose to end his life so dramatically? We never really know; Jay remains a mystery, a never fully realized figure. Yet as Claire works to understand herself in the painful and often chaotic days after the “incident,” we come to see deeply into the lives of an appealing, realistic group of imperfect characters struggling to make do in a world that does not correspond to their dreams.

Suffused with black humor and mordant wit, set in a contemporary cultural landscape replete with Starbucks lattes and Pottery Barn furnishings, Happy Now? takes its readers on a surprising, unsentimental journey into the heart of one woman learning, finally, to be both vulnerable and strong. It is a journey we might all wish to emulate.

Joyce Zonana is a professor of writing and literature at the City University of New York. Her memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, An Exile’s Journey, was reviewed last year in Lilith.