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Shari Lapena


I am frequently asked for book recommendations, and the specification is a well-written novel that isn't incredibly depressing. Happiness Economics is exactly that – a joy to read even though it deals with serious topics – written in a way that doesn't drag your spirits down. It's an oddly hopeful and frequently funny read that reminded me of the late, great Paul Quarrington in all the best ways.

Will and Judy Thorne are an upper-middle-class couple in Toronto raising two children, ages 10 and 12. The once passionate pair has grown apart as their professional lives diverged and seemed only to emphasize the significant differences in their core values. Most of those disparities are related to the role of art and commerce, both in the outer world and in the domestic day-to-day of Thorne family life.

Will is a poet who had some moderate success with his first books, published in his 30s. He left a solid job as an English professor to look after the kids when they were small, and write poetry full-time from home. Fast-forward 10 years and he's unable to write the novel-in-verse he's been working on for years. Every day he sits in his office and tries to write, meeting other writers in the dog park, talking to other poets on the phone about the sad state of Canadian poetry, but never managing to put words down on the page. He looks after the kids, making sure they don't watch too many Hollywood movies, and is appalled when his daughter is invited to a "shopping party" – where kids go to the mall and moms give them money to shop.

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Meanwhile Judy thinks nothing of it – she's ecstatic that her daughter is pretty and concerned with popularity and shopping. Judy is at the top of her game career-wise, a celebrity economist and non-fiction author, the sort asked to speak on CNN about the state of the economy. Judy no longer finds Will's poetry career all that romantic; she's convinced that if he only contributed to society with some "real" work, their marriage could get back on track.

Meanwhile, Will hangs out with a gaggle of Toronto poets, including poverty-is-romance poet Gord, who once won a Governor-General's Award, and who never misses an opportunity to mock Will for being a kept husband.

The stakes are raised when Will attends a poetry reading and meets Lily White, a beautiful woman and terrible poet to whom Will is immediately attracted. Enter an armed ex-boyfriend and a bungled attempt by Will to save her, and the articles describing the thwarted attempt end up being read over the Thorne breakfast table. As Will becomes more obsessed with Lily, Judy begins to suspect something isn't right.

Will meets Lily at another poetry reading and, via the more overt Gord, the trio ends up chatting about a plan to help poets survive. Though it's too complicated to explain exactly how this happens, in exchange for Will agreeing to write advertising copy for his wife's friend, Judy agrees to fundraise for The Poets' Preservation Society, a granting organization for struggling poets. It's fair to say that goofball high jinks ensue when middle-aged poets run about the town spray-painting poetic revelry about.

Happiness Economics is about lofty ideas like the meaning and relevance of poetry, the validity of "the muse," the way we are raising our children, and capitalism itself. But at its heart it is a beautifully articulated treatise on long-term relationships and how they change as the people in them invariably do, over and over. It is neither hopeful nor disdainful about the failures and triumphs of family, it simply asks you to be with the Thornes during an anxious moment of redefinition.

All four main characters – parents and children – are engrossing and real. Lapena builds quiet suspense expertly, and has a knack for showing us inside these terribly flawed and sometimes annoying people, making them beautiful in their ordinary and contradictory ways. In a way, the book acts as a sort of satirical love letter to the Toronto literary community, making some hilarious pointed jabs at poets, and the ways in which writers can be both infuriatingly naive and vibrant cultural risk-takers at the same time.

Zoe Whittall is a Toronto poet and novelist. Her latest book is Holding Still for as Long as Possible.

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