Monday, February 18, 2019

Review: The Forgotten Guide to Happiness by Sophie Jenkins

Write what you know. It's the famous writing advice doled out to every aspiring writer there is. And there's a good reason for it but what happens when you don't want to write about what you know anymore, when you're having trouble finding anything in the creative well, and certainly not finding anything anyone else wants to read? In Sophie Jenkins' novel The Forgotten Guide to Happiness, one of the main characters is facing just this very crisis but life will soon present her with inspiration and understanding from unexpected quarters.

Lana Green wrote a breakout novel based on her real life romance with live-in boyfriend Mark. She's under contract for another book in the same vein but she can't write the book her publisher is looking for because Mark has dumped her long distance and she's going to have to give up their once shared apartment, not having the money to continue to live there. Of course she can't write a book with a happy ending right now when her life is falling apart. Then she meets a man named Jack, who claims he's ready to be her next hero. And he is, sort of. Not only will he go on pretend dates with her to help her with her writing inspiration, it turns out that his step-mother, Nancy Ellis Hall, a well known but now retired feminist writer, is in her eighties and suffering from ever worsening dementia so she needs an in home caregiver. Excited about the proximity to such a well known writer, Lana is delighted to move in, help Nancy, and maybe pick up some valuable writing tips at the same time. She doesn't expect to learn about love and friendship too but she certainly does.

Readers start off feeling sorry for Lana, who has clearly been completely blindsided and heartbroken by Mark's decision to leave. But Lana, similarly to the protagonist of her thinly veiled autobiographical novel, is rather weak and her wallowing and self-centeredness really starts to grate. She needs to write her own story, both figuratively and literally. Her unhappiness at having to take a job teaching a writing class and her impression of her students is dismissive and unkind, especially given her own writer's block. Thankfully her impressions do change and the writing class people teach her as much as or more than she teaches them. While she is good and understanding with Nancy, she continues to look for ways that Nancy can benefit her, from taking her to the writing class to wow her students to reading Nancy's journals in hopes of a kernel of an idea to write about. She is clearly a flawed and not always likable character but she is consistent until 2/3 of the way through the book when she abandons everything she's learned and becomes a character the reader doesn't even recognize, not just because she makes a dreadfully poor decision, but because this out of character interlude causes the story to sort of fall apart. Once she recognizes her mistake, about six seconds from the end of the book, the entire ending is scanty, rushed, and unearned.

Nancy, in all of her quirkiness and with her failing memory, is delightful and step-son Jack is charming and forgiving in a way that makes the reader really root for this beta hero, even if he doesn't believe in love.  That's okay though as this is not really a romance.  Since the novel is told in the first person by Lana, the reader spends more time with her (and often times frustrated by her) than they do with Nancy and Jack. This short-changes Jack's character in terms of depth but Nancy's was still heart-warmingly fleshed out. Even inhabiting Lana's perspective, sometimes her reasoning for her choices is not always clear or well developed. Despite this maddening lack, it was genuinely nice to watch her interact with the other characters and learn the true meaning of caring for other people, wanting the best for them and for herself, both in love and in friendship. In the end, this is an easy, generally sweet read that didn't quite live up to my expectations.

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