Joan Silber begins her new novel by slowly reeling in our curiosity as she introduces us to the center point of her alluring tale, a secret from which will spin moral and ethical threads about money, love, and happiness.
Ethan, a NYC attorney moving into an apartment with his boyfriend, receives a devastating phone call from his sister. She’s learned their father Gil keeps a second family in Queens, a Thai woman, Nok, and their two teen-aged sons, Joe and Jack. Nok has filed a paternity petition; she needs money to send her youngest son Jack to a private school.
How hard he must’ve worked at that elaborate life of his, hiding and emerging and making himself up. He took to his roles, as spies do, but it wasn’t the easiest way to live.
The next chapter focuses on Joe, Ethan’s half-brother, a website developer. He reconnects with Veronica, an old friend who wanted to marry Joe right out of high school, but Joe refused. Later, Veronica married a wealthy boy she met in college, Schuyler. Her husband, though, looked the wrong way when he crossed a London street and died in the accident. Veronica is now broke, thanks to Schuyler’s family, “Ivy league vampire assholes” according to their friends. The family contested Veronica’s right to Schuyler’s money and won. Joe gives Veronica a loan to help her stay on her feet. Meanwhile, he travels to Thailand to get his brother Jack out of jail, bringing money to bribe the police.
Silber’s known for creating immersive novels by linking powerful short stories. In fact, several chapters in this novel were published in literary magazines, as listed in the acknowledgements. She uses a kind of six degrees of separation with a character mentioned in one chapter becoming the driving force in the next one. As the chapters build, so too does the intensification of the novel’s emotional draw. Schuyler, describing his wife Veronica, says, “She used to have a Thai boyfriend.” This occurs in the chapter following Joe’s chapter, which is written from the viewpoint of Maribel, Schuyler’s mistress in London. We learn of their time together, before the fatal accident, and those seven words connect Maribel via Schuyler to Veronica who’s connected to Joe who’s connected to Gil.
One of the big questions of my father’s life had been ‘What can money buy?’ It bought my mother’s company; that was the initial lure. [Gil] believed in money, he wanted everything bound to him by it, as if it were surer than other ties.
Gil accumulated wealth traveling throughout Asia for his business affiliated with the garment industry, and from this Silber skillfully explores a multifaceted theme designed to illustrate how tightly money cleaves to, defines, and drives us. She ponders the moral and ethical issues, the questions that burden, avoiding ho-hum platitudes and trite configurations. Some of her characters need money, some run from it, some shrug it off. Tara, the film director whom Maribel and Schuyler work for in London, is described as “anti-flaky” regarding money. We get her perspective, too, and learn that Tara’s mother dated Gil years in the past and almost married him. Tara contacts Gil to ask for help funding her documentary. Her mother, Frankie, contacts him for a loan to help Tara’s sister.
What was it with people remembering him only when they wanted money? He was surprised at Frankie — Frankie of all people, Frankie who had never been like that — but maybe he shouldn’t have been, since the other daughter had also wanted a handout.
Ethan returns to close out Secrets of Happiness. By now we’ve traveled globally with these characters, to and from London, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Kathmandu, and New York. There’s a poignant end to Ethan’s newest relationship and an intriguing story of a stolen rare book. It’s more than enough for us to be grateful for, what with Ethan’s hopeful perspective and this breathtaking narrative that leaves us knowing, with absolute certainty, we need to keep reading Joan Silber.