Claire’s husband Jay killed himself on Valentine’s Day by jumping off a balcony at a colleague’s party. He didn’t leave a suicide note; he left a binder with detailed information about life insurance, their cat’s veterinary records, and a short, cryptic note under the tab marked “Claire” that revealed almost nothing about his decision. A long-suffering depressive, Jay had never displayed signs he would end his life… at least, not any Claire or his therapist had noticed.
Happy Now? begins in the days after Jay’s death, during which Claire has temporarily moved into her pregnant sister’s guest house to hide from the world until she’s ready to reemerge. Jay’s sister calls to bitterly remind Claire that “there is enough blame to go around,” and Fang, Jay’s cat, is inconsolable and seemingly also attempts to follow her master into the afterlife by eating a poisonous plant. Claire’s father parks outside her temporary home for fourteen hours at a time and follows her everywhere she goes in a strange mix of protective paternalism and stalker-like behavior. At one point, Claire mistakenly attends the wrong group therapy session and ends up telling off its members. At other times, unable to stop herself when asked, she blurts out “Jay killed himself,” often at the least opportune times.
Happy Now? might be what fellow writer Elaine Beale once called a “quiet” novel. The bulk of the story centers on Claire’s relationship with her family, and with herself, blended with flashbacks to the early days of her relationship and the small warning signs that only appear significant in the aftermath of Jay’s suicide. Claire’s ability to reflect on her relationship in the wake of tragedy was fascinating and raw, and even the most basic logistics of how to put her life back together were mesmerizing—perhaps because the experience is quite removed from my own, and yet familiar enough to feel comfortable.
Even without one major incident to lift the story arc in the novel, I was enthralled by Katherine Shonk’s vivid detail and ability to climb inside the mind of a shocked and grieving abruptly widowed young woman. So captivated by the way the novel focused on the particulars of Claire and Jay’s life—and Claire’s parents’ and sister’s relationships as well—I read the book over the course of a few hectic days, a pre-bed ritual of reprieve from the madness of my own life. If fiction is meant to be a journey and as escape, this book succeeds on both counts.