God, Dogs and Other Delights

Secrets to HappinessBy Sarah DunnLittle, Brown, 277 pp., $23.99 Just so we’re clear, Sarah Dunn’s second novel, Secrets to Happiness,

Secrets to Happiness
By Sarah Dunn
Little, Brown, 277 pp., $23.99

Just so we’re clear, Sarah Dunn’s second novel, Secrets to Happiness, is not chick lit. Ms. Dunn, a recovered television writer, seems intent on proving this to us via the central character of Holly Frick, a television writer who took a stab at writing a novel. That many dismissed her book as chick lit is a thorn in Holly’s side.

Perhaps it’s a preventative measure on Ms. Dunn’s part, asking us kindly not to categorize her work with pink-covered books festooned with high-heels or Birkin bags or martini glasses. She needn’t worry. Secrets to Happiness is smart, bitingly funny, laced with sitcom-sharp dialogue and bittersweet. Far from a confectionary tale, it reads more like a spiritual journey, one that follows Holly and a cast of supporting characters as they try to turn their lives around.

Holly admits that, even in her mid-30s, she still has a bit of the Bible-beater in her from her youth: “She was raised to be one, the way some girls are raised to be southern belles or Olympic gymnasts. It had been just as rigorous, too, the training, and just as hard to shake.” And so she grasps more tightly to a moral compass than most. We’re not supposed to talk about God, but Holly Frick does. Don’t worry—she’s not going to tell you to go to church (heck, she doesn’t!), but she does feel free to question the modern condition (“are we supposed to be so sophisticated that there is no longer such a thing as right and wrong?”) In fact, Holly, and the people who populate her world, might entice you to think deeply about some of the things you try to push to the edges of your mind. God. Having a selfish affair. Not wanting to deal with a dog with cancer (more on that later).

 

SECRETS TO HAPPINESS is told from several points of view. Besides Holly, there’s her vice-haunted writing partner, Leonard, who is fleeing demons of drugs and gay porn; her cad of an ex-boyfriend, Spence, whose philandering has finally caught up with him; and a high-strung woman named Betsy, an aging publicist and sad, serial dater. These folks are all well drawn, but Holly’s journey is the most fully realized.

More than a year out of a difficult divorce, Holly is starting to fear that she might never recover from it, and will become one of those people “who go on through life beset by a dim and painful longing.” She brightens things up with a 22-year-old named Lucas, who is also Betsy’s younger brother. Ever intent on being honest, Holly makes no bones about the fact that Lucas is an escape. Lucas, for his part, seems happy to take what he can from Holly … until he professes his love.

Holly, a realist, explains that Lucas should embrace the relationship for the fun ride it is. In response, he rolls over and grabs his Corona off the nightstand. This lands with Holly. She tells him, “Whenever I’ve been on the other end of this conversation, I’ve always had a lot more to say.”

This is a theme in Holly’s world; everyone simply does what they want, when they want, whereas Holly is constantly in conflict. When her best friend, Amanda, a married mother of a toddler, contemplates having an affair with a man named Jack, she is aghast; as bad as the cheating is the fact that Jack is a Buddhist who eats cheeseburgers. (Though, as Jack later points out, the Dalai Lama eats meat, too.) Yet her notions of right and wrong, rather than being grating, are actually charmingly old-fashioned. Case in point: After she rescues a dog with a brain tumor from a shelter and nurses him back to health, she gives him back to his fair-weather family when they come looking for him. That’s a good girl!

In Holly’s search to lead herself out of the aforementioned dim and painful longing, she enters into a surprise dalliance with a man who would seem, for most intents and purposes, to be the perfect match. He challenges the blindly moral approach Holly takes to life, suspecting that her philosophy stems more out of fear than from actual faith. “You believe in God,” he tells her. “You just don’t believe that God is good.”

But since this is not a chick-lit book, a guy is not the answer here. For Holly and her supporting cast, the secret to happiness is embracing the fact that, as one character states, it’s O.K. to live an ordinary life. This means accepting a life they would have otherwise shunned, be it because of their own self-judgment or that of others. Holly accepts the fact that she is a nice girl who likes to do things like, say, believe in God and rescue a dog or two. When you look at the rapturous beagle lolling in grass on the cover of the book, you might start thinking that something as simple as pet adoption could be the answer.

 Anna Fricke is a television writer who has written for Dawson’s Creek, Everwood, Men in Trees and Privileged. She lives in Los Angeles with her family. She can be reached at books@observer.com.

  God, Dogs and Other Delights