Snappy, Pleasing Novel Content With It’s Own Wit

Whatever Makes You Happy, by Lisa Grunwald. Random House, 238 pages, $23.95.

This novel says New York in its first sentence, which is about the courtyard of the narrator’s childhood building, recognizably on the Upper West Side. The opening of the story pro-per, in the present time-“Lying in bed with my husband one night, I am shocked to discover that I can’t remember the size or shape of any other man’s penis”-equally firmly defines Lisa Grunwald’s territory as somewhere between Fear of Flying and Diary of a Mad Housewife, which is to say within the domestic novel as informed by feminism, smart-aleck humor, and an unacknowledged and probably not very conscious need to conform.

From that one sentence, you already know what will happen: Either the husband is going to be a schlub or nogoodnik who is eventually ditched for a better (more romantic, more glamorous) life of apparent liberation, or-the far more likely scenario for this middle age of the baby boom-the wife will venture outside the marriage, but without transgressing the boundaries of a Central Park West and Riverside Drive of the mind. The plot will be studded with excellent sentences and tiny mirrors in which you can embrace some particle of yourself, and it will melt away even as you consume it. It’s skillfully crafted, but you’ve read it any number of times before. It so intelligently and justly ratifies the status quo that-in an all’s-right-with-the-world kind of way-it will almost make you happy.

Researching happiness is the premise: Sally Farber, 40-ish mother of two and a best-selling author of previous volumes on anger, jealousy and love, is supposed to deliver her fourth book, on happiness, but even after two years of research, she’s not sure she knows what it is or whether she has it, has had it or never had a clue. To thicken the mix, or at least to provide plotting convenience, the tenant of Sally’s childhood apartment has died, and Sally’s mother, the absentee landlady, wants Sally to prepare it for sale. (Real estate: What could be more New York?)

Sally also has a best friend always on tap, a foil so convenient she could only exist in a novel or sitcom. Equally conveniently, in setup terms, Sally’s daughters-one 10, the other younger-are going off to summer camp for the first time. Spare apartment, children away, stalled book project: Of course Sally will have an affair; of course he’ll be an artist, and of course he’ll be world-famous; and, naturally, this will help her figure out that if her heart’s desire isn’t in her own backyard, she never really lost anything to begin with.

What redeems the book is its off-the-cuff observations; almost everything incidental is snappy and astute. The husband, for instance, is not a schlub but a doctor whose understanding of his wife partakes of kindness but not all the acuity she might like. Ms. Grunwald observes this kind of good-enough domestic love with nicety: “He turns to me now with a marital smile, a smile filled with wisdom and depraved acceptance”; “I felt the strenuous joy of his orgasm, and a fair one of my own”; “We share the bemused, wry sigh of modern wives in the act of preferring women’s company to men’s.”

Ms. Grunwald is terrific on the artist, too, partly by making both him and Sally very knowing: “‘Aren’t you at all concerned about whether this is going to mean more to me than to you?’ I ask him. ‘Oh, I assume it will,’ he says cheerfully and without hesitation. And then, with bone-crushing charm, ‘simply because I’m a selfish shit and you’re a goddamned miraculous angel.'” It doesn’t take more than that to know why she falls for him and that, about himself at least, he’ll be totally right.

Sally’s material on happiness is also seductive, if in the manner of The New York Times’ Science section, where you may have read some of it: studies showing that happiness tends to travel with the individual rather than follow circumstance and, therefore, remains level in individuals before, throughout and after the ends of marriages; studies of correlations between happiness and health; of the internal effects of smiling; of the propensity for error in predicting what will make you happy. Thinking philosophically, Sally may be less lovable, or not, as it takes you: About the concept of contentment, she wonders, “Is that happiness? Or is that only resignation wearing a funny hat?”

An observation like this, both gratingly superficial and insidiously suggestive, makes me want to answer the question in an essay immediately; it’s most definitely not going to be addressed in any meaningful way by the loves or family life of a character as unconflictedly successful as Sally, or so basically in tune with what’s acceptable. The book is, as its air of easiness demands, smaller than the sum of its parts. So long as you’re not expecting Anna Karenina (“In this way he lived, not knowing or seeing any possibility of knowing what he was or why he lived in the world”), it won’t really matter.

Anna Shapiro is the author of two novels and a collection of essays, A Feast of Words (Norton).