Happy Now?

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A debut novel about a young husband’s suicide explores the pain, confusion, absurdity, and even humor of grief.

Here’s the situation: Claire Kessler, an artist and real-estate stager, and her husband Jay, a research psychologist, live in Chicago. They have been married almost two years. They don’t have children yet but, after some ambivalence, Claire now realizes she wants to be a mother. Then one night at a party, Jay hurls himself over a high-rise balcony, falls twenty-three stories, and dies. On his desk at home, he’s left a binder full of paperwork, including account numbers, tips on taking care of his cat, and a goodbye letter to his wife.

How and what we tell ourselves about our lives matters. The words we choose matter, and how we shape the story matters. Happy Now?, Katherine Shonk’s debut novel is the story of what happens to Claire after her husband jumps. Shonk shows us how she grapples with the life she thought she had with her husband, and the way his suicide forces her to reexamine that story. While moving forward in the present action after Jay’s funeral, Shonk circles back to tell the story of how the couple met, as well as stories from their life together. Shonk also unfolds the details of Jay’s suicide and Claire’s attempts to interpret those details. These details accrete to tell a certain story that Claire needs to hear, and then over time, as the details are reinterpreted, this story changes and reveals a slightly different, more honest retelling.

Claire constantly replays the last voicemail from her husband to comfort herself. She hears the beating of his heart. She believes Jay has left her a final message of love through this sound. But later, a more likely, less romantic explanation is revealed. Claire struggles with the right word to describe what happened to her husband. She tries “event,” “disappearance,” “accident,” and “tragedy,” before settling on “incident.” All are correct in their own way, but their real purpose is to describe Claire’s relationship to what happened, as opposed to the words she asks others not to use: “death” and “suicide.” This careful examination of Claire’s thought processes and emotional turmoil enables Shonk to portray realistically the complexity of grief.

And somehow, though the situation is far from comic, Happy Now? can be funny. Shonk balances humor and levity with the emotional burden Claire carries. In an imagined dialogue with her psychotherapist, Claire wonders whether her husband’s suicide was “a fleeting impulse.” In her imaginary exchange, her psychotherapist answers, “A fleeting impulse? Your husband didn’t just leave a suicide note. He left a suicide binder. ” Late in the novel, Claire realizes “Jay’s parents had picked out the casket. It was tasteful, made of ash, like something Pottery Barn would sell if Pottery Barn ever decided to sell caskets.”

In one of several strained exchanges, Jay’s sister Veronica asks Claire for a copy of her brother’s suicide note. Claire, Shonk writes, “wanted to see if Veronica would say it aloud: Be a dear and take your husband’s suicide note over to Kinko’s for me, will you? ” During a heated session with Jay’s psychologist, Claire pushes Dr. Ackerman to reveal what Jay talked about in his sessions; she worries that her nagging pushed her husband beyond the point of no return. Ackerman pauses to consider Claire’s logic. “You’re asking,” she said, “whether I think Jay killed himself because you asked him to organize the closets?” The absurd question may make a reader chuckle, but Claire’s honest concern and suffering comes through poignantly. Ackerman replies, “He didn’t say anything about your closets,” and Shonk’s comic timing lets us feel something of Claire’s great relief.

Though Shonk’s humor is often successful, the novel’s strangely flippant title left me puzzled. Happy Now? —is this Claire asking Jay, her dead husband; or is she asking it of herself, as time passes: “Am I back to my baseline contentment yet?” One doesn’t encounter many questions-as-titles, and I’m still not sure what I think this one means.

When someone ends their life, their loved ones are left with a painful mystery that can never be solved, questions that can never be answered. Even if the person leaves a binder full of information, and a note that says it’s not your fault—as Jay did for Claire—you still don’t have a real explanation. Finding out why and how it happened is the work of a lifetime of aftermath, and Katherine Shonk’s Happy Now? gives an in-depth and complex exploration of that aftermath, its depression, its grief, and its love.

Grace Talusan is the author of the memoir The Body Papers and teaches in the Nonfiction Writing Program at Brown University. More from this author →