Henry, Emily. Happy Place. Viking, 2023. 400 pp. ISBN 9780241609460. $27.00
Emily Henry excels at character-driven novels with romantic themes, and Happy Place is no exception. When Harriet and Wyn first hooked up, they kept it a secret from their college friends–some of whom they lived with–for a year before revealing their relationship. Almost a decade later, the same friends don’t know they broke up five months ago, and in the interest of keeping up appearances at their annual retreat in Maine, where the hostess Sabrina and their mutual friend Parth are planning to wed, Wyn and Harry must keep up the charade of their long-distance relationship and engagement. Happy Place swings back and forth between remembrances of summers and times past (Harry’s Happy Place) and Real Life, where ex-lovers are acting lovey-dovey and touchy-feely in front of their best friends while sharing a gorgeous master suite and behind closed doors, showering separately and one of them is sleeping on the floor.
The novel explores relationships of all types and how they change: college roommates grow up, get married, get pregnant, change majors and careers. Children become caregivers to widowed parents with Parkinsons. Friends hold onto resentments, keep secrets, betray and forgive. Harriet still isn’t clear on exactly why Wyn broke up with her–midway through her surgical residency in California, he returns home in Montana caring for his mother; they did live together briefly, but he was a shadow of himself, still fighting to hold minimum wage jobs while she was exhausted and never home.
Henry writes so evocatively. Throat-achingly full of Harriet’s and Wyn’s pain, angst and longing, she also made me feel the stickiness of the movie theatre floor at the cinema, the fuzzy edged world after a pot gummie, and the joy of a swim during the golden hour. She must have pages of details about Cleo, Sabrina, Harriet, Cleo’s wife Kimmy, Parth and Wyn that never even see the light of day. Each has a signature scent, a style, and a unique way of moving through the world that shows their individuality and similarities, the glue that holds them together, still. Having spent my life in New England, with many trips of Maine, she captures it’s appeal beautifully, and the story is masterfully, brilliantly plotted, with just enough tease to propel the reader forward to find out what really happened.
Sabrina, intent on making sure everybody has the best time ever at this last hurrah before her dad sells the vacation home, has a by-the-minute itinerary that schedules everything from grocery shopping to special surprise treats that speak to each one’s passion. Sabrina books studio time for Harry, whose newfound hobby of making pottery is a saving grace. Wyn shows up and Harry invites Wyn to take a turn at the wheel, and their conversation becomes a metaphor for their relationship. “You didn’t ruin it. We’re just changing the shape of it.” she tells him, summing up their struggle to remain friends with someone who was more than a friend from the moment they met.
I have two minor quibbles with the book, neither of which is with the author: there is sometimes repetitiveness in the way things are described (“creamy lobster rolls” pops up twice), which I chalk up to imprecise editing. I do not care for either the ebook or hardcover art, for which I lay fault with the art director–it’s too hot pink for New England, and poppy for the sadness within; Wyn is described with dark blond hair, and Harriet with dark and neither cover gets both right.
I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #HappyPlace from #NetGalley.