Juliet "Ju-Ju" Judd never really believed she would end up spending two years in a Federal Correctional Facility in upstate New York. She'd been working as a high profile art dealer when she was sentenced for conspiring to illegally sell a stolen Tiffany Window. Although she didn't actually take it, she took the blame because she divvied up the money and wrote the checks. Wracked with shame, she blamed it on her love affair with Ritchie, her partner in crime, who led her down the path of shady dealings and corrupt transactions.
We first meet Juliet just as she's being released from prison and her dependable brother Charlie has arrived in the States to take her home to England. It has been two years of hell for this intelligent and quietly enigmatic girl, and her sudden incarceration has splintered and fractured her family.
Mired in humiliation, Ju-Ju's parents, Daphne and Charles retire to a ramshackle cottage on the windswept coast of Cornwall, devastated at their daughter's plight. Always the apple of his eye, Charles can't bear the thought that everyone knows his precious daughter is in gaol. Ju-Ju's younger sister Sophie, battles drug addiction, whilst working as a film advertiser in London. And Charlie, the family success story, is making his fortune selling socks over the Internet.
For two years, the Judd family has stumbled into darkness; Daphne - never actually believing that Ju-Ju was guilty - finds solace in prayer, cooking classes and flower arranging. She hopes for a resolution, a manifestation of family, where one day they can all get together in Cornwall. Charles, bitter at being forcibly retrenched from a prestigious law firm in London, endlessly studies the cliffs and ekes out his days on the local golf course.
Obviously they've coped badly, even the dog-committed suicide, and then there where Daphne's ghastly and tense visits to the prison to see Ju-Ju in America. Author Justin Cartwright steadily unveils the family dynamics, with Ju-Ju's imprisonment affecting each of them in vastly different ways. Caught in an ethical dilemma, Charles refuses to go to America to see his daughter because he just couldn't bare to see Ju-Ju suffer; he feared the sight of her in a prison uniform would demolish the unsteady edifice that his life has become, he even admits, "I am being punished for my cowardice."
Charles is the moral center of this novel, yet he is the one who loses his bearings and the one most affected by Ju-Ju's incarceration. Wracked with disenchantment and deeply cynical, he tries desperately to blame 9/11: "all the foreigners were suspect; the dragnet caught my Ju-Ju." And he's angry that his life hadn't turned out the way it should have and that all the hope he had invested in his daughter has come to nothing. He'd always imagined that he could shield their children from all that is harsh and lonely in the world.
The Promise of Happiness is all about the search to regain contentment in a world that has become far from bucolic. England is transforming and within this change, the Judd family finds it difficult to reconnect - intimacy does not come easy for them. They're also a family who are somewhat clannish and critical, even Daphne believes they are "from some natural aristocracy, "whilst Charles just wants to "pull up the drawbridge against the barbarians."
Ju-Ju's experience has caused them to go through a forced and very necessary cycle of change. Her release from prison brings a new awareness, challenging their guilt and their willingness to encapsulate a grief that has so dominated their lives. Cartwright has written a complex and multifaceted story that explores the terrible costs of avoiding happiness. His themes are profound - the importance of beauty, class, and family and the idea that art is different from the rest of life, something pure and more authentic.
Throughout the novel, the Judd family is faced with some critical choices - especially Charles, as he's the type of old-style reserved Englishman who knows he's out of touch with the modern world and holds a lot back. It is only through Ju-Ju's eventual arrival back in London that this family can be reunited and begin to move on, and perhaps start to heal from this terrible tragedy that has so dominated their lives. Mike Leonard May 06.