- Paperback: 160 pages
- Publisher: Soft Skull Press; 1 edition (April 14 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9781933368764
- ISBN-13: 978-1933368764
- ASIN: 1933368764
- Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 1.3 x 20.3 cm
- Shipping Weight: 136 g
- Average Customer Review: 5 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #605,636 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
My Happy Life Paperback – Apr 14 2007
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About the Author
Lydia Millet lives in Tucson, AZ and Wellfleet, MA.
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The entire story is narrated by the woman from within her locked room in a mental hospital - it has been abandoned, and is ready for demolition. She has been forgotten - or perhaps left there purposely. For a while, she thinks that someone is coming back for her, and she sits on her cot, waiting patiently for the door to open. Eventually, she realizes that this is not going to happen. She has water, but nothing to eat except toothpaste, shampoo and soap - and she doesn't recommend the latter two items as food. Her memories begin to flow - she is writing them on the walls of her room with the stubs of pencils. Her entire life is laid out before us in a tableau of unbelievably inhuman treatment - from her time as a foundling taken into the system (the 'kindness of the state', as she puts it), to her placement in a succession of incredibly abusive and exploitative foster homes, to her eventual life on the street as a teenager who has 'slipped through the cracks' (as have far too many), to her eventual commitment to a psychiatric hospital.
It's hard to imagine how someone who has been treated so badly by so many finds in her heart the ability to see beauty in the world and its people - but she does it. There's no 'Pollyanna' quality about her - Millet never lets her character slip into such syrupy, maudlin goop. The author lays out the story with kindness and empathy for her character - and from time to time, doses of humor as well, which are carefully meted out and fall into the narrative quite naturally. Her descriptions of the events in her life, and of the places she has seen, are quite lovely - rather than being inappropriately eloquent for someone who is uneducated (in a formal sense, at any rate), I think the beauty of her narrative should be taken as a literal rendering of her thought-flow. As such, it's not at all incongruous with its narrator - and it manages nicely to connect her with the reader.
The book is a pretty quick read - and as such, it merits re-reading. It's full of passages and thoughts that will resonate more and more deeply with repetition. It's a thing of great beauty and feeling - don't let it slip past you.
'And I thought: There is one birth of bones and skin, and then there is another. And the second birth is the birth of the dream.'
It is the Narrator (never identified) who makes the comment above in Lydia Millet's, "My Happy Life," a woman who has had almost no real happiness in her life and who always recovers from whatever blows and misfortunes life deals her without any ill feelings or rancor. She is resilient to a fault..always looking on the bright side, always making excuses for those who mistreat her.
We all know this woman. She's the one who cleans our hotel rooms or offices. She's the one with the bad haircut and out-of-style coat whose smile we do not return on the street. She's the one we hope never to become.
But Millet makes her a heroine with a profound sense of insight and razor sharp introspection...a kind of life experience idiot savant. And in the end....we, at the very least, admire her and maybe even secretly want to be her.
The Narrator takes us to her bosom early on when she says: "so now I seem alone...But I am not alone...I have You." And that she does through 150 pages of heart-wrenching bad luck and unspeakable misfortune. But nonetheless, the tone of the novel is sweet with the fragrance of a life fondly remembered.
Our Narrator is "Everywoman" and by extension Everyman: exploited, abandoned, discarded, imprisoned, rejected, made invisible by age. Millet seems to be saying: Look at this woman, Look at this Life, Look how she recovers and perserveres... Don't complain to me about your petty upsets and daily trials and tribulations! Here is how it is in the extreme...in a place where you can't fathom from where your next kind word or small affirmation will come; much less your next meal.
Along the way Millet composes some breathtaking phrases and descriptions: "So I was not alone. With me were the absent people. And all of them were not bodies but only the forms of all their sorrow and longing. By and by I felt what I had always known, that myself I was neither a city nor a rock, but only particles and figments. And like all people I was quite imaginary when I was alone. And alone we were all of us ghosts."
"My Happy Life" is anything but. And Lydia Millet has managed to write a fictional biography which is on the one hand scary, pitiful and pathetic while on the other, one of extraordinary beauty and unexpected humor and elegance.
She has lived a harsh and difficult life and gone through unspeakable things, yet she remains incapable of bitterness or anger. Her ability to love and forgive is staggering, and she sees beauty in things that others wouldn't think at all about. Locked up and abandoned in a mental hospital, the woman struggles to survive and eventually begins writing the story of her life on the walls.
I love this book because after the first couple paragraphs, I felt like a completely different person. And after I finished it, I realized that I was still me, but I felt different, like my mind had been expanded and I'd seen the world through someone else, someone who could only love. Millet's writing hits you right in the pit of the stomach, and I'd be interested in seeing what else she has to say. I'd recommend this to anyone who thinks they would appreciate a book like this.
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