Penelope Lively’s Perfect Happiness begins with Frances Brooklyn at a concert in Oxford with her sister-in-law Zoe. They are listening to Frances’ daughter Tabitha play second violin in Bach’s Brandenburg Five. Frances’ husband Steven, a famous academic, has been dead for “eight months two weeks one day” (8).
I enjoyed Perfect Happiness, and at the end of the novel I was left with that intense feeling of satisfaction one experiences after reading something really good. However, when I sat down to write this review, I found somehow that I couldn’t really find what I wanted to say about it other than it was good. But why is it good? Is it good but not excellent? Good but not exciting? Good but unoriginal? Certainly, I was unsurprised by anything that happened in the novel, and I had worked out some of the truths long kept secret by the characters before Lively allowed them to be shared.
A quick survey of some other reviews revealed superlatives in praise and the following: “this graceful novel does invest the most conventional outline–a recent widow’s recovery from grief and achievement of selfhood–with effectively restrained compassion and charming, warm-textured wrinkles.” The reviewer’s conclusion is also “restrained”: “within the very distinct limitations of the widow-rediscovers-life genre, this is elegant, gently affecting fiction, only occasionally marred by flat and sentimental obviousness.” (Kirkus Reviews kirkusreviews.com Accessed December 2016 Web).
As I read this Kirkus review, I thought, “Well, can I really say anything other than that?” I think so. The words that resonate with me are “graceful” and “elegant.” I’m not sure I agree that the novel is flawed by sentimentality. Lively’s prose is unobtrusive and fluent; her plot structure, believable, though not particularly original, and her conclusion is optimistic rather than “sentimental.” Lively creates realistic characters who elicit our understanding and sympathy, and her evocation of place accurate. Lively reveals a sensitivity to the nuances of life, those little things, the small gesture, the words unspoken, the arrangement of furniture, the landscape of a street: all those things that reveal who or what a person or place is.
Lively’s clear-eyed objectivity is far from saccharine even as it is subtle. Of course, the title is ironic because we know that there is no such thing as perfect happiness. If we are honest with ourselves, even when we remember past happy times, they were never exactly perfect, or if there was a moment of perfection, it was fleeting. That is the way of life, as are loss and grief. What Lively underscores is that to feel grief one must first have felt love, and, as we know, there are many different kinds of love, and so many different kinds of loss.
The characters in the novel variously experience desertion and betrayal, divorce, death, major injury, artistic failure and resentment. In the hands of a different writer, such events could have made a very different book indeed, melodramatic perhaps, or cynical and satirical. Instead, it is a finely wrought, sensitive engagement with emotions and with those experiences that we are somewhat loath to admit but which we will all experience. It is this subtle delicacy that makes the work so rewarding to read.