Katherine Shonk’s premise does not sound promising: a young husband has killed himself and the devastated wife tries to explain to herself why he did it. But Shonk tells the tale in a way that makes it more engaging than you would imagine.
Happy Now? (262 pages, Farrar Strauss, $25) is Katherine Shonk’s look at grief. Claire Kessler has just lost her husband, Jay, who killed himself by jumping off the balcony at a friend’s party on Valentine’s Day. Any Valentine’s Day suicide would be tough, but Claire and Jay had their first date on Valentine’s Day a couple of years before, and this makes the suicide even more painful to the young wife.
The novel opens after the wake and funeral. Claire is staying with her sister and husband, in the coach house/guest house behind their house; and she is surviving on the casseroles and baked goods that all her friends have brought by in her time of crisis.
Claire is unable at first to do anything but sleep. She cannot see a therapist, as everyone recommends, nor can she join a support group, read the suicide “binder” that Jay left behind, or even talk to anyone outside her immediate family. She is close to her sister, and they can cry together well. Her divorced parents are also on hand: her mother hectors her to get on with her life, and her quiet and sensitive father offers her his mute but constant support.
The novel proceeds by following Claire as she takes on each of these challenges—the therapist, the support group, the binder—as as she does, Shonk gives a portrait of the marriage that went wrong. Clair did not find out about Jay’s depressive side until they had been dating for quite a while. When she found him depressed and uncommunicative, moreover, she worried, but he tried to allay her fears and tell her that he was working on his depression and that therapy was helping.
By the time Jay and Claire married, she thought they were managing the depression all right. But really she was kidding herself, for Jay’s spells got more frequent and more devastating, and she could not begin to figure out what to do about them. It wasn’t just that he shut her out when he was depressed, but he also made her feel more than useless, almost as if she were part of the problem rather than the solution.
Of course She blames herself for his suicide, even though she knows this is unreasonable. She also feels deep anger at the selfishness of his final act. He planned to kill himself at the party because she was not going to attend. When she showed up at the party to surprise him, he greeted her warmly and then went ahead and killed himself anyway. This really upsets her. She tries to explain this to Jay’s (young and attractive) female therapist, but the therapist won’t reassure her that she is not to blame. The therapist is so concerned that she not indulge any of Jay’s confidences that Claire comes away feeling, if anything, worse.
The same thing happens when she goes to a support group. The flyer was misleading, and instead of sharing tales of lost loved ones, she is confronted with a group of people who have all considered suicide themselves. She leaves in a huff, telling them all as she goes how utterly selfish they are.
Gradually Claire begins to deal with her grief, and as the novel ends we can feel that she is on the road to recovery.
Katherine Shonk has told a searingly beautiful tale, and out of Claire’s grief, her regrets, and her attempt to come to terms with the devastating loss, she has crafted a very positive effect.
Pick it up at Powell's, Vroman's, and Amazon.