Happy are the Happy

by Yasmina Reza (translated by John Cullen)

Other Press, $20, 160 pages)

Who is this author?

Yasmina Reza, who lives in Paris, is a playwright, actress, screenwriter and novelist who has enjoyed both popular and critical praise for her work, which has been published in more than 30 languages.  Her plays “Art” and “God of Carnage” were produced in America and Europe, and “God,” which opened on Broadway with James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels, Marcia Gay Harden and Hope Davis , won Best Play at the 2009 Tony Awards. Her seven books include Dawn Dusk or Night: A Year with Nicolas Sarkozy. John Cullen, who lives in New York, has translated many book from their original Spanish, French, German and Italian.

What is this book about?              

Eighteen characters. Twenty-one chapters. One hundred sixty pages. Yasmina Reza packs a powerful punch in this relatively short novel, whose title comes from a quote from the novelist Jorge Luis Borges:  “Happy are the loved ones and the lovers and those who can do without love. Happy are the happy.”

The book’s interconnected vignettes, written with humor and compassion and told in the first person, introduce and connect ordinary people – insofar as French people ever  can be thought of as ordinary — struggling with ordinary problems – though some are more than a little unusual, like the plight of the parents trying to hide the fact that their son suffers the delusion that he is, in fact, Celine Dion. Sacre bleu!  This Gallic go-round is very merry, yet notes of poignancy underlie the cleverness and enrich the stories, the characters and the power of this slim but memorable book.

Why you’ll like it:

Reza’s background is international – her father was a Jewish Iranian of Russian descent and her mother was a Jewish Hungarian violinist – but her appeal is universal. Smart, sharp and witty, she is a keen observer of contemporary mores and obsessions, and she uses a light touch to present characters struggling with mundane concerns that carry the possibility of major upheavals in their lives. Happy indeed will be the happy readers who explore this book.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says: “Happy Are the Happy is another coup, a quick and delicate book that’s as funny as it is humane. Each of its short chapters…is told in the first person and concerns, for the most part, other characters in the book soon to introduce themselves if they haven’t already. Everyone gets a word in, and the style is feathery as gossip. Characters chime with one another in ways they never realize, a conviviality that is bittersweet. Their voices are self-aware, a little jaundiced, vulnerable, sometimes plaintive, and entirely authentic…Reza is attuned to intensity and banality in equal measure—how they refuse to converge at a tolerable midpoint, how infrequently people agree on which is which.

Says Publishers Weekly: “Playwright and author Reza’s newest book is a fragmented novella of vignettes, all of which function as independent short stories. Reza follows more than a dozen characters struggling with marriage and loneliness—opening with “Robert Toscano,” a hilarious study of patience and insistence revolving around a married couple in France, the Toscanos, who get into an escalating argument over cheese (he doesn’t buy the kind she likes). Reza’s askew humor pervades the book—four chapters later, we find out that the seemingly perfect Hunter family (bitterly envied by the Toscanos) has a secret: the son is not interning abroad, he is in a mental institution because he believes he is Celine Dion. Reza’s vignettes are also dark (a man’s incestuous relationship with his brother later turns him into a sexual masochist) and sardonic (a man accuses his wife of wanting to be buried together for social reasons: “My wife is counting on the grave to outfox spiteful gossips, she wants to remain a petit bourgeois even in death”). Reza’s stories build and build, creating a complicated, multifaceted world—a world that is unmistakably Reza’s.”

“The characters in these 21 brief, bittersweet and playfully interconnected stories by the French playwright Yasmina Reza hold tight to philosophies about love…[Reza] fills the stories, most of them six to eight pages long, with efficient detail, making them feel, perhaps unsurprisingly, like a series of vibrant one-acts,” says The New York Times.

The New Yorker says: “The twenty-one interconnected monologues in this meditation on parenting, death, and relations between the sexes manage to make domestic trifles seem electrifying. With implacable wit and a dramatist’s sense of timing, Reza offers snapshots from the psyches of eighteen characters, including a couple who squabble over Morbier cheese and stuffed hamsters, and a retired financier and statesman who taunts his exasperated wife with instructions for his funeral. The tone is wry, warm, and accepting.”

Library Journal’s starred review says: “This enjoyable work from France-based novelist and playwright Reza  . . . concerns happiness in one’s personal life, with spouse, children, parents, and friends. The first chapter sets a humorous tone as Odile and Robert go shopping for cheese in a crowded supermarket, arguing over Morbier and the junk food Odile has placed in the cart for their children. A few of the characters in other chapters are definitely quirky: a man playing cards with his wife gets so agitated that he eats the king of clubs, for instance, while another sincerely believes he is Celine Dion. With sharp insight, Reza quickly penetrates the thoughts and actions of the characters to reveal just how happy (or not) they really are. VERDICT Winner of the Le Monde Prix Littéraire française 2013, this charming novel will make all Francophiles want to move to France immediately. What a delightful, witty slice of life!”

When is it available?

Happily, this book is available at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Dwight and Mark Twain branches.

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