In Becky Adnot-Haynes’s first collection of stories, The Year of Perfect Happiness, happiness is—not surprisingly—a state more imagined than experienced. Adnot-Haynes is a close observer of relationships and the human capacity for deception, especially self-deception, but happily, she’s no cynic. Happiness is always possible in these stories, and occasionally her appealing, off-kilter characters get out of their own way enough to find it. They also make disastrous assumptions and struggle with compulsions they don’t understand. They keep secrets, tell lies, and follow their own self-destructive urges. They may not know how to be happy, but they’re always trying, with unpredictable results that make for a very satisfying read.
“There are certain things you keep to yourself,” says Mina, the protagonist of “Baby, Baby,” and that sounds reasonable enough until you discover what she’s keeping. Mina has taken to wearing a fake pregnancy belly in public, masquerading as a happy, expectant version of herself while ignoring her ambivalence about her boyfriend Tom and their future together. Like many of Adnot-Haynes’s protagonists, Mina’s drifted into a new stage of life without a plan. Jobless and isolated after moving to Tom’s hometown, Mina goes through the motions of house hunting and spends a lot of time on the Internet. Wearing the belly offers an escape from this limbo into another. Even strangers treat her imaginary pregnancy as an event, which gives her a thrill that “[zips] through her like a glass of strong beer.” For a while, it’s enough to inhabit the state of happy anticipation her belly implies, and to be told she is lucky.
There’s not a lot of luck in Adnot-Haynes’s universe, except the luck of making the right choice when it doesn’t look like the right choice, but even then, there’s always something in the character’s makeup that leads them to it. Those who think they understand themselves rarely do, and part of the fun is teasing out their motivations: why they don’t recognize what they’re doing, or why they know full well and do it anyway. The characters are flawed and vulnerable and always likeable, which is to say that even their worst decisions never made me cringe, and I found them freshly interesting with each rereading.
Fears are the secrets that, when unacknowledged, skew judgment, though a relationship may be off balance for other reasons. Nell, in “Rough Like Wool,” seems perpetually unfinished, unmarked by experience or ambition. As the young wife of a rich older man, Nell finds herself pregnant, idle, and unreasonably jealous of her husband’s medical research. Peter is understanding, forgiving, and increasingly indulgent of Nell’s increasingly childish demands. Nell knows she should act differently but finds herself unable to stop, craving some friction in the relationship, some pain, even scars.
There are larger questions or preoccupations circling in all these stories. One is whether you can “keep back” any part of yourself in a relationship; the other is how a baby changes a couple’s dynamic. In “Grip,” Ewan, a former college track star, begins pole-vaulting on the sly. He knows he should tell his wife, but he’s in thrall to “the feeling of wanting something that is only yours, something secret from the world, something small and good.” He and Cora have been trying to get pregnant, and as he grapples with his own anxiety over impending fatherhood, his lies compound, threatening to damage the small, good thing between them.
“[T]here are two kinds of people in the world,” thinks Abbott, in “A Natural Progression of Things,” “those who take action, and those who don’t.” Abbott is a community college sophomore who works at a fast food restaurant and pines for Gwen, his no-nonsense, thirtysomething neighbor. He’s sure she thinks of him as just a kid, but when she asks for his help, he sees the perfect opportunity to cast himself as mature and capable: boyfriend material. He’s trying to make the same leap everyone’s trying to make in these stories, to become the future, happy self they envision:
The people who take action get paid good salaries to do the jobs they want. They get their teeth cleaned regularly and they return library books on time. They get out of stale marriages, end friendships that have soured. They kiss the people they want to kiss.
People who don’t take action, like [Abbott], generally wait for others to do it for them. They forget to return phone calls. They wait for their parents, teachers, bosses, and best friends to tell them what to do. They don’t complain when their steaks come out medium-well instead of rare. Sometimes, he thinks, good things come to the non-action-takers and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes wonderful, lucky things come and the non-action-takers turn them to shit with their poisonous, lazy touch. He tells himself he will not turn this to shit.
Adnot-Haynes’s writing is a pleasure. Her rhythms are sure and her sentences immaculate. I stopped often just to admire how lean they were, trimmed of every extraneous word. She has a knack for the descriptive phrase that lands not just on the mark but dead center, and is at the same time, dryly funny:
“. . . nauseated by too much television, she goes to the bedroom.”
“. . . she disliked arts and crafts, the glittery sludge of them.”
“He has a reason for moving, a nascent curl of a plan . . .”
In the title story, “The Year of Perfect Happiness,” Davis decides he needs to experience one year of perfect happiness. “For Davis, happiness is traveling,” so it will involve moving to another city, leaving his girlfriend behind, and starting a new business, “because isn’t that what happiness is, anyway: doing something you’re good at and knowing that you’re helping people at the same time?” There are bumps, of course, the business gets delayed and his goals—even the idea of happiness—redefined. Davis is lucky he can afford to take it slow, work on himself a little first, “and isn’t that happiness, anyway, establishing a version of yourself that you like and then maintaining that self, doing things that make you proud?” Soon enough, another move, another girlfriend. He goes to visit his wealthy parents and then he’s living there, with no job, “sleeping with a woman who hasn’t voted, ever,” and quite content when he can ignore how many of his high ideals he’s abandoned, but “isn’t this what happiness is: being with another person who not only allows you to be yourself, but who requires it?”
I won’t spoil the ending for you. Whether or not Davis ever decides what happiness means to him and whether or not he winds up happy, he always believes in the possibility. He is, like Adnot-Haynes herself, both a realist and an optimist. However he comes down in the world, however his plans go awry, he still believes happiness will come with the next fresh start, the next decisive action, the next words he chooses to fill in the blank, “happiness is __________.” He believes he has it in him to be happy, and after reading these stories, I have to agree.
About the Reviewer
Anne McDuffie writes poetry, essays, and book reviews. New work is forthcoming in Signs of Life.