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Sunday, December 4, 2022

When a Father Has a Second Family

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By Joan Silber

Joan Silber’s ninth novel, “Secrets of Happiness,” features six narrators over the course of seven chapters. It kicks off with Ethan, a lawyer whose love life is collapsing in tandem with the health of his robust father, Gil. Ethan also learns that Gil has for many years led a double life: He is married not only to Abby, Ethan’s mother, but also to Nok, a Thai woman living in Queens who has borne Gil two sons.

After the first chapter ends, Silber wisely allows Ethan to yield the floor to Joe, his Thai half brother. When Joe’s direct address concludes, we meet in turn four additional characters separated from Ethan by one or six degrees, or some degree in between, until we return to Ethan in the seventh and final chapter.

This is a signature style — the Silber structure. Call it the relay narrative: In book after book, Silber gets things up and running with one character, telling his or her story to its fullest, before leaping into a wholly different life and telling all about it. These narratives are often richly rewarding on their own, but more sublime is what can fall out between any two accounts: some devastating misunderstanding or easily missed opportunity that, heartbreaking as it might be for the characters, rewards the reader with a rare, delectable irony.

[ Read an excerpt from “Secrets of Happiness.” ]

Silber illuminates those invisible fissures and inexplicable distances that we sense, however dimly, make up our shared lives with others as much as our formal connections and open battles. A mere bit player in one installment turns into the bête noire of the next, while the jerk grades in to a redeemer. Roundedness is what Silber is after, the insight that comes with a change in perspective, a god’s point of view. I never wonder more at how little we know about how greatly we factor in other people’s lives than I do when reading Silber at her best. She aims, in increments, at the ecstatic.

“Secrets of Happiness” shows what happens when the Silber structure is spread too thin, its linked characters imperfectly calibrated. There is enough revelation, and resolution, to fill an entire novel in Ethan’s chapter as his father’s double life comes to light; but Joe’s narrative fails to engage with Ethan’s, to qualify or repudiate it. We never learn what Joe knows of Ethan, or what he thinks of him and the father they share, or what differences in background and upbringing the two had and how Joe feels about that. Embittering distances are never measured, destroying depths rarely plumbed.

Instead, Joe’s attention, and the reader’s, is focused on Veronica, Joe’s ex, who finds herself widowed and unmoored at 25. Joe’s story gives way to that of a character named Maribel, which gives way to Rachel’s, which gives way to Bud’s — at which point the double life, the half brothers and the fascinating figure of Gil have all fallen by the wayside. The narrative strands attenuate and lose sight of a satisfying whole.

In a book with a big cast in which points of view are siloed and connections are tenuous, broken or unknown, it’s vital that characters commune with one another all the same, if only to profitably pick away at all that’s come before. In past books, Silber’s smart choice of theme — the notion of the divine in “Ideas of Heaven,” the representative “other” in “The Size of the World” did some of that unifying work. The theme in “Secrets of Happiness,” which declares itself in the title, rouses but never roars.

What are the secrets of happiness? Money? Renunciation? Duty and loyalty and love? Lacking a strong point of view, Silber offers up each possibility in its turn, but they, too, fade away. The return of Ethan as narrator in the end would be pleasing if the stories had culminated in revelation rather than simply compounded. Capable of ecstasy, this time Silber delivers merely something humane, elegant and wise.

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