Fiction: "Reconsidering Happiness," by Sherrie Flick.
"What do women want?" Freud famously asked, and we've been pondering that question ever since. Commitment, stability, marriage? Sure. Adventure, freedom, a good old time? You bet.
In her engaging new novel, Pittsburgh writer Sherrie Flick, cofounder of the Gist Street Reading Series, plays with the tension between these two desires.
"Reconsidering Happiness" is the story of two women, one settled, one searching. Margaret and Vivette are not exactly close friends, but they briefly worked together at a bakery in Portsmouth, N.H. When the novel opens, restless Vivette has hit the road, fleeing a disastrous love affair with the husband of the town's most famously married couple.
She has wrangled an old Buick from her grandfather to head west, her destination Des Moines, which she picked simply because she loves the sound of the words. But first, she stops off to see Margaret, wondering if this slightly older, settled woman might have some life tips.
University of Nebraska Press ($21.95, paper)
Having left behind her own New Hampshire heartbreak, Margaret is now married and living in a farmhouse near Lincoln, Neb., surrounded by gentle fields and a few sheep. Enter Vivette, dripping rainwater on the hardwood floors (a great image), and for the next few days, the women talk, avoid each other and are thrown into thinking about their pasts.
They cook together and walk through the fields and drive around, separately musing on their own time at the Penhallow Bakery, their tumultuous relationships with men, their impulse toward something they tentatively, warily define as happiness. As these backstories develop, the characters overlap and entwine.
Flick has fun playing with the women's different perspectives on life. Having already had her period of restless searching, Margaret has decided that happiness is "a deliberate decision." She tells Vivette she has "given in," deciding to focus on where she is "instead of driving off to where I wasn't all the time."
Margaret suspects that maybe happiness "was there all along, and in that moment I let it bubble to the surface? A curve in the road, blue sky, green fields, sunflowers beside a barn. I stopped, you know, felt this blip of joy -- felt how simple and beautiful and easy the world could be. It was comforting."
To Vivette, Margaret is "this pleasant paper sack, this drained aqueduct." At 23, Vivette is a current of electricity, a cowgirl riding over the next hill in the big old Buick. For her the question is more, can a girl who wears Doc Martens with a short skirt find happiness on the flat Midwestern plains? Who are you going to find to talk to in a bar in Lincoln? What is it about married men?
Flick has deep and amusing insights into the way these young women think, behave, reflect. And she finds just the right moments to create the arc of a relationship, from a chance encounter in the grocery line to the way a fight over the right way to do laundry can suddenly change everything.
The marriages she describes are simultaneously solid and fragile, and Flick knows just where the fine cracks can be found.
She also has a fascinating way of exploring the way the land and the people of a place produce a kind of culture. She gives a nice sense of the Midwest here, its limitations, its odd seductions for the hip of New England.
But the greatest strength of this novel is Flick's immersion in the daily bread of life, and in this story, that's a literal item. The Penhallow Bakery is evoked in all its aspects, from middle-of-the-night baking to the rotation of pies.
Soup is prepared for lunch, vegetables are chopped and all kinds of solace is served up for anyone who needs a cookie, a cup of coffee, a place to sit. Flick writes so enticingly about baking that I was hoping to see a recipe (for the brownies, for instance) at the back of the book.
By the end, nothing is solved, and that seems just right. Marriage is still a strange and perplexing state, secrets leak, the restless still ramble, loneliness persists. In one of the final images of the book, a man has taken his wailing baby for a walk, and she has finally fallen asleep. He stands outside the bakery, where a light is on, at 4 in the morning on the bitter cold night, wanting to be somewhere warm, with hot chocolate, a muffin, to be near someone doing the humble, generous and necessary job of making what will feed us.
Reading "Reconsidering Happiness" is a lot like that: Inviting, warm, rich and complex.
First Published August 30, 2009 12:00 am