There are many different types of "family novels" being written in today's insular world, and sadly not all of them are worth reading. There are those that read like personal memoirs --- maudlin accounts of dysfunctional upbringings and unforgotten family rifts that often sound like the author is using his or her writing to work through psychological problems left over from childhood (i.e. whining). There are also those that boast an overarching theory about The State of The Contemporary Family and a ripped-apart value system without really delivering a graspable narrative. And then there are those that, despite their minor flaws, deliver an amicable mix of engrossing story and "state-of-things philosophizing" so that by the time the book has concluded, its readers feel that they not only have had an entertaining and informative look-see into someone else's family life, but that they have also realized a thing or two about their own.
Man Booker-shortlisted and Whitbread-winning author Justin Cartwright's latest offering is thankfully the latter of the three. A slow-to-unfold yet rightfully deliberate stroll through the contours of human suffering and a story that recognizes the importance of hope as an offset to seemingly irreversible tragedy, THE PROMISE OF HAPPINESS describes one family's pieced-together attempt at redemption following a far-reaching misfortune that threatens to break them apart permanently.
At 32, Juliet Judd is at the height of her life. She has a cheeky, hip gallery-owner boyfriend, a gorgeous Upper East Side apartment, an Oxford education and a prestigious job at the preeminent Christie's in New York. In the midst of it all, she is convicted of an alleged crime --- it is questionable whether she plays an active part in it or not --- and is sentenced to what turns out to be three years in prison. The fact that there were others responsible for stealing and reselling the Tiffany's glass window is beside the point, according to the court. She is the one who wrote the checks. She is the one with the prestigious reputation. She is the one who must take the fall.
In her absence, the Judd family silently unravels --- each in their own twisted struggle to reconcile the condemnation of their prodigal daughter/sister. Her father Charles loses his business as well as his grasp on reality, withering away into a frail shadow of his former self. Her mother Daphne realizes the depths of her unhappiness and tries to fill the seemingly endless empty hours with pointless cooking classes and gardening. Her sister Sophie drops out of school, starts doing drugs, and has an affair with her boss, twenty years her senior. Her brother Charlie, despite becoming successful in a burgeoning self-started Internet business, enters into a relationship with a gorgeous yet seemingly vacuous woman, Ana. Although Ana is pregnant and they have plans to marry, it is questionable as to whether or not Charlie actually loves her. Without Ju-Ju to hold the family together, the Judds flounder about, wounded and self-righteous in their efforts to block out what has befallen them.
Fast-forward three years and Juliet is being released from prison. In preparation for her return home, a number of intentional (and unintentional) transformations take place. Charlie plans to go ahead with the wedding and Daphne makes arrangements for an elaborate celebration --- bringing together her old family with the new, all in a blind hope to restore peace and humility to their shattered world. Sophie breaks up with her married boyfriend, takes out her nose ring (a small yet symbolic gesture) and plans to move home for the summer to get her life in gear. Even Charles, although he has the hardest time of it, takes pains to get past his depression enough to forgive his daughter (and himself) for all that has transpired in her absence.
What makes THE PROMISE OF HAPPINESS so touching and worthwhile is not so much the actual circumstances of Charlie's, Sophie's, Daphne's, Charles's or Juliet's lives, but how each one deals with the randomness of what happens to them in relation to how they define themselves as individuals and as part of a breathing, functioning family unit in the world. "And so this is life. It is arbitrary; its narrative is erratic. [They] have been given a harsh understanding of the human condition. [They] didn't ask for it, or seek it." But they must keep moving and growing together, nonetheless.
As Tolstoy once wrote as the opening first lines to ANNA KARENINA, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Justin Cartwright's eighth novel is a true testament to the disparaging trials any family might encounter and to what ends they might have to travel to make it through to the other side.
--- Reviewed by Alexis Burling