May 2021 Indie Next List
“No one is better than Joan Silber at revealing the hidden links that connect people. The small, human details in Secrets of Happiness feel at first like ripples in a pond, but they prove in the end to be mighty waves in an ocean the size of the world.”
— James Crossley, Madison Books, Seattle, WA
When a man discovers his father in New York has long had another, secret, family—a wife and two kids—the interlocking fates of both families lead to surprise loyalties, love triangles, and a reservoir of inner strength in this "expansive and elegantly crafted novel" (Fresh Air, NPR).
"Rich with the complexities of life . . . the stories create a world made fully dimensional through changes of perspective—major characters appear and reappear as part of one or another’s experience and testimony . . . Pull any life’s thread and you discover a mesh of involvement that soon takes in all the others. It is a fine thing, subtly done, and truly exhilarating." —The Wall Street Journal
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 working abroad, returning much changed, as events introduce her to the other wife. 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 has struck about love and money continue to shape their lives.
As Ethan finds himself caught in a love triangle of his own, the interwoven fates of these two households elegantly unfurl to encompass a woman rallying to help an ill brother with an unreliable lover and a filmmaker with a girlhood spent in Nepal. Evoking a generous and humane spirit, and a story that ranges over three continents, Secrets of Happiness elucidates the ways people marshal the resources at hand to forge their own forms of joy.
About the Author
JOAN SILBER is the author of nine books of fiction. Her last book, Improvement, was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award and was listed as one of the year’s best books by The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Newsday, The Seattle Times, and Kirkus Reviews. Her previous book, Fools, was long-listed for the National Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Other works include The Size of the World, finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, and Ideas of Heaven, finalist for the National Book Award and The Story Prize. She lives in New York, has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, and teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA program.
An O, The Oprah Magazine Most Anticipated Book of Next Year
A Library Journal Title to Watch
AARP, a Top Pick for Spring
"Secrets of Happiness unfolds across families and lovers, across time and expectations, across the country and across the world, and the bigger it gets, the more it shows how deeply connected we are. Joan Silber writes with a frankness and freshness that draws the reader closer with every page. It would be impossible to overstate just how good this book is." —Ann Patchett
"Secrets of Happiness looks like a series of linked stories, but it’s more like a roulette wheel in print: Each chapter spins to some other character in a large circle of possibilities. It takes only a moment to get your bearings, and the disappointment of leaving one narrator behind is instantly replaced by the delight of meeting a new one . . . These stories unfurl with such verbal verisimilitude that they’re like late-night phone calls from old friends. Every imperative page trips along with the wry wisdom of ordinary speech—the illusion of artlessness that only the most artful writers can create . . . Their stories—like ours—all revolve around money and love. Can a check ever come with no strings attached? Who cares enough to nurse the dying? Who deserves the inheritance? These tales turn on such questions, as though Silber were holding a coin in the light, testing the mettle of each grasping, grateful, generous soul . . . In quiet, surprising moments, Secrets of Happiness suggests something lies beyond the columns of loss and gain, something one character calls 'the sunny opacity that love can induce.'" —Ron Charles, The Washington Post
"In the seven artfully linked stories of Ms. Silber’s new novel, Secrets of Happiness, we find both types, but once again those who display the will to be canny, which money in the offing or in the pocket seems to confer, are the most deeply penetrated and superbly conjured . . . Each of the seven sections engages our interest right off the bat; each has a first sentence pregnant with promise . . . Having seized our attention, Ms. Silber pushes forward into her characters’ stories, summing up in fleet, fluid prose the circumstances and acts that have shaped their lives to this point, then slipping deftly into further events where, for better or worse, the gravitational force of money can be felt . . . [It is] rich with the complexities of life; the characters’ motives and their decisions arise out of personalities meeting circumstance. Further, the stories create a world made fully dimensional through changes of perspective—major characters appear and reappear as part of one or another’s experience and testimony . . . Pull any life’s thread and you discover a mesh of involvement that soon takes in all the others. It is a fine thing, subtly done, and truly exhilarating." —Katherine A. Powers, The Wall Street Journal
[An] expansive and elegantly crafted novel . . . Silber begins handing off the story, chapter by chapter, to other narrators, among them Ethan's newly-discovered half-brothers, the ex-girlfriend of one of those half-brothers, and Ethan's fickle present lover's former lover. It's not like everyone knows each other, but they're connected in some cosmic way, almost like a horizontal extended family tree that can only be observed from space. And they all have such smart things to say about love." —Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air
"Few make fiction feel as exciting as Silber—and not in plot, but mere structure. Characters impact one another. Tones shift with perspective. Scenes build with profound scope . . . This latest novel feels like vintage Silber: stories interlinked with the confidence of Elizabeth Strout, but all their own mood and power." —David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly
"Exceptional . . . The push and pull of commerce and love plays out in other family disasters throughout Secrets of Happiness, each chapter so well constructed and compelling it could stand as a separate story. Every character knows someone else in the book, and as lives bump against each other, bruises result . . . The easy, uncluttered prose reveals the connections between characters without artifice, and Silber can't resist highlighting life's paradoxes." —Connie Ogle, Minneapolis Star Tribune
"The worlds she twines together in her new book of linked short stories, Secrets of Happiness, span oceans and continents, along with the social divides that were E.M. Forster’s focus . . . Silber’s knack for inhabiting far-flung realities is remarkable . . . The book’s narrative suspense increases with the arrival of each new narrator (there are six altogether). Perplexing plot points in one episode—a seemingly pointless lawsuit, for instance—find explanation, if not justification, in the next. Along with the pleasure of figuring out the connections between these characters, there’s a thematic suspense to the book too, implicit in its title. All Silber’s narrators voice variations on the questions: What brings happiness in life? Where do greed, desire and bargaining ability fit into the picture? Where does contentment with having less? . . . Secrets of Happiness pays the best kind of attention to its characters’ desires, dilemmas and, of course, connections." —Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times
"Silber writes compellingly in terms of connecting characters, she just has a very unique style . . . Joan Silber weaves together this phenomenal story that spans from London to NY to Cambodia with ordinary people with their emotions and humor . . . It's as if you are in a snowstorm and someone has put this warm blanket around you because you get involved with the characters, they're ordinary people with ordinary struggles, she brings you to them with a voice you trust . . . This is a good book if you want to have something to look forward to in the evening." —Kassie Rose, All Sides, WOSU
"Joan Silber is a masterful writer of multifaceted characters in complex relationship dynamics . . . Her new novel follows a man harboring a secret—he's leading two lives, part of two families—and the impact of his deception radiates far beyond him." —Arianna Rebolini, Buzzfeed, One of the Most Anticipated Books of the Year
"Silber moves easily in and out of her characters’ heads; the novel is deceptively airy, yet, given a reflective reading, it has an ethical center without the shortcut of easy morality. Silber’s fans, and readers who enjoy smart, humane contemporary fiction that doesn’t talk down to them, will enjoy this work." —Library Journal
"A new Joan Silber book is always a reason to celebrate. Her latest is the story of a family—two families—exploding after a years-long infidelity comes to light, told in intersecting, polyphonic voices, like a tapestry of those affected." —Literary Hub, One of the Most Anticipated Books of the Year
"A new novel in stories from the master of the form . . . Silber's storytelling is so artful [and] so filled with humor and aperçus . . . Echoes the great Grace Paley, to whom Silber is so close in spirit and voice. While Paley was an all–New York gal, Silber makes faraway places seem familiar—oh, for the time when we can work on knowing the world even one-tenth as well as she does.These secrets of happiness really will make you happy, at least for a few sweet hours." —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"The complex seesaw of love and finances, both offered and withheld, is explored throughout seven chapters and across four continents. Silber’s device—a secondary character from one chapter commanding the narrative in the next—is as effortless as a dragonfly skimming over a pond . . . Secrets of Happiness also explores the great generosity of love that exists in families, whether we’re born into them or choose them. Rarely is a novel of moral ideas so buoyant in spirit or so exquisitely crafted." —Lauren Bufferd, BookPage (starred review)
Praise for Improvement:
"This is a novel of richness and wisdom and huge pleasure. Silber knows, and reveals, how close we live to the abyss, but she also revels in joy, particularly the joy that comes from intimate relationships . . . [A] perfectly balanced mix of celebration and wryness." —The New York Times Book Review
"Joan Silber's quietly brilliant novel Improvement weaves an intricate, zigzagging pattern out of the lives of a dozen people, and six well-chosen narrators provide the voices . . . The multiplicity of voices in this production gives a wonderful aural dimension to the weave of inadvertently interlocked lives." —The Washington Post