Thursday, October 27, 2011

Happiness Economics

Happiness Economics / Shari Lapeña
Victoria, BC: Brindle & Glass, c2011.
240 p.

I read Lapena's first novel, Things Go Flying, as part of my Canadian Book Challenge last year. I enjoyed it so much that I knew I had to read this next one as soon as I could get my hands on it. While the cover is nowhere near as appealing to me as the first book, I was still drawn in quickly and enjoyed this read.

The story pits husband and wife -- and their worldviews -- against each other. Will is a stay-at-home dad who spends his days working on his poetry epic. He's been doing this for ten years now, and his immensely successful economist wife Judy is beginning to tire of it. She can't understand why he won't go back to teaching at the university, or even just get any kind of job. She feels that his fixation on poetry is ruining his (their!) life.

Meanwhile, their children (one daughter, one son) are caught in the crosshairs. Their teen daughter seems to be getting bullied at school, and their son is in danger of becoming fat & unpopular -- at least in his mother's estimation. He's fine with his life. But through a combination of factors, both kids end up having to take self-defence lessons, chauffered by their dad. This provides some of the funniest moments of the book, as the instructor is very tough and encourages the kids to scream out obscenities while flinging each other to the ground. It may sound odd but it was highly entertaining.

And there's more to this book than family dynamics. Will has to deal with jealousy over other poets' successes, with the realization of middle age as he develops a highly inappropriate crush on a young, passionate poetry lover (Lily White, who admits that she's a pretty bad poet herself), and with developing his Big Idea -- setting up a Poet's Preservation Society to support all the indigent writers he knows. With his link to the poetry world and his wife's connections to rich people he figures he can't lose. Add to this Lily's peer group of poetic activists and parkour practitioners and you get a Mission Impossible: Saving Poetry situation.

There are also deeper questions of the meaning of Art in our commercially fixated world. Will and his wife represent two perspectives on the question but in the end, poetry -- all art -- is obviously the winner. Judy ponders the idea of a real economic theory, Happiness Economics, near the beginning of the book, and returns to the discussion at the end, and I think this encapsulates the "idea" of this book quite well -- thus the title. Here are the two excerpts:

At the moment she was hastily skimming an article about a new branch of economics called Happiness Economics. It was the first she'd heard of it. She liked the idea that economists could assign an exact monetary value to things like divorce, or the death of a loved one, or once-a-week sex. It seemed inherently right to her to be able to measure human happiness in dollars and conclude, for example, that once-a-week sex (compared to once-a-month sex) offered as much happiness as adding tens of thousands of dollars to your bank account.

Happiness ought to be measured in dollars! Then you knew what you were dealing with.


Judy realized now of course that she'd missed the point about Happiness Economics. What did it matter that economists could assighn a dollar value to something that didn't come with a dollar value attached to it? The point was that happiness research consistently showed that the highest value -- the greatest happiness -- was attached not to tangible things but to the intangibles -- to human relationships -- time spent with family and friends. And to the benefits that flowed from strong social policies such as good health care, education, and, yes, culture. The whole point of Happiness Economics was that perhaps governments, when making decisions, shouldn't be so focused on purely economic measures.

While I didn't fall in love with this book as entirely as I did with Things Go Flying, I still enjoyed it. The skewering of personalities in both worlds was fun and yet not too cruel. And I was glad that in the end both Will and Judy were shown to be complex people with no villainy ascribed to either. Definitely a book to put on the "poets in literature" list; I think it would be in great company with Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist and Lynn Coady's Mean Boy.


For this year's Canadian Book Challenge I've chosen as my theme "Small-Press-Palooza" Thus, for each book I'm including a link to the small press who has published it. Take a look -- there are wonderful small presses all over Canada!

More about Brindle & Glass


  1. I have done very badly at reading Canadian authors this year. I really must do better... Maybe this author is a good plan!

  2. This sounds like a great book with a deeper message. I like the title, too, though I thought it was going to be a non-fiction!

  3. Kailana - I read quite a few all in a rush, then haven't read any for weeks always goes in cycles!

    Aarti - yes, it does sound nonfictionish! But it is a novel with a message, for sure. I thought that the author leavened the message with a lot of humour, though.


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