(Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2014)
Think of one year of your life when you were perfectly happy. Not a special day, or that week you spent in Cabo, but a full year. Can you do it? In the title story from Becky Adnot-Haynes’s debut collection, The Year of Perfect Happiness, a restless New Yorker, disturbed he will look back on his life and be unable to locate a year when he was perfectly happy, dumps everything and moves to Phoenix in pursuit of this goal. Also to finally start his Forage Farm, which is a mix between a co-op and assisted gardening program. But as his dream (and his plants) shrivel under the desert sun, he drops the “perfect” modifier from his plan.
This is how he’s begun to think of it—a year of happiness, dropping the ‘perfect’ because to be perfectly happy, that’s impossible, really, he knows that now, but to be happy—is achievable. (And isn’t it more reasonable, he asks himself, to hope that you may become realistically satisfied with your life rather than ecstatic with it?)
Adnot-Haynes’ collection, with its sly humor and biting prose, is a stark analysis of the stories people tell (and revise) to themselves, and the secrets they keep from their closest companions. All to preserve the integrity of what we think is supposed to make us happy. The remarkably vivid characters are driven by self-destructive urges that are at once bewildering and completely believable.
Recently, I spent a holiday weekend with a group of my married friends and their kids. As they all piled their progeny into various mini-vans, a nosey neighbor spotted me, the sole adult sans child, and loudly asked,
“So, where’s your baby?”
I froze at first, a deer in the mid-thirties-and-still-single headlights. Then, looking down at my feet, I replied gravely,
“I don’t like to talk about it.”
I briefly indulged my dark impulse, leaving that thoughtless woman standing shocked on the street as I climbed into the mini-van and crammed between two baby car seats. The characters in The Year of Perfect Happiness don’t just give in to their impulses for one small moment, but instead strap on a fake baby bump and tour houses with their realtor pretending to be pregnant, or obsessively try on the clothes of their husband’s first—and now deceased—wife. In one stand-out story, written in the second person, Adnot-Haynes takes you along for the ride as an introductory trapeze class forever changes the trajectory of a woman’s well-planned life:
You didn’t know that it would feel a little bit like sex—the bodily connection, the fitting together of parts—the small oh! you released when Isaac, the catcher, grasped you by the wrists and held you swinging through the air, an incredible three or four seconds of weightlessness until he dropped you gently to the net.
Adnot-Haynes doesn’t write cartoony, neurotic people, but drills down beneath the surface to expose the perilous fault lines that exist in us all. Cracking her characters open, the stories reveal the raw, disturbed emotion hiding inside and the extreme measures people take to try and piece themselves back together. Even when these bungling and stubbornly misguided characters give into their destructive urges, they do so with hope and a raw need to connect, or reconnect, with the people around them:
He has the feeling of being much further from them than he actually is, feeling that if he were to call to them his voice would disappear before reaching them, his words moving away from them in rings, and it is then that he feels the adrenaline of fear slip away and in its place a weight like lead in his belly, the dread and gloom and terror over spoiling something pure and good and right.
The result in a delightfully uncomfortable collection that explores the struggle between the secret desire to share our most sordid stories (if only those closest to us would ask…) and what is lost when we do.
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Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons is a writer, teacher, and storyteller. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairleigh Dickinson University and combined her love for theater and writing to create No, YOU Tell It! – a series that supports storytellers as they strengthen their true-life tale on the page and experience someone else’s story on the stage.