Hello, Mr. Heartache
by Jincy Willett
Holly Frick, the writer at the heart of Sarah Dunn’s new novel, hates the term chick lit. Since we never actually get to read her own novel, “Hello, Mr. Heartache” — whose horrible title was imposed by her publisher’s marketing department — we can’t be certain that she hasn’t actually written “fiction by and for women,” the generally agreed-upon definition of that loathsome term. But the novel in which Holly herself appears was definitely not written just for women, no matter how it’s packaged. True, the protagonist is female, the setting is Manhattan, and the focus is on relationships — and there’s a big shopping scene. True, mostly women will read it. But then women are the ones mostly reading everything. Besides, it’s not about shoes. And the shopping is for books, at the Strand. Also, unlike chick lit, chick TV and chick movies, Secrets to Happiness is actually funny.
New York, with which Holly feels “trapped in an abusive relationship,” is generously featured, and the usual tourist spots are included — Central Park, the Cloisters, the bar at the Carlyle. But this isn’t the glamorous, romantic version of Manhattan. Holly really works for a living, writing for a not-very-successful children’s cable TV show, and she doesn’t make enough money to navigate the city with careless ease. Her New York is the kind of place where desperate characters throw a party in a BMW showroom to introduce a perfume that smells like Fruit Roll-Ups.
For a novel about a writer, Secrets to Happiness is refreshingly straightforward about the profession. An old boyfriend is outraged to discover that Holly has used him in her novel in a recognizable way. Like any pro, she claims this is naïve nonsense: fictional characters have multiple inspirations; he’s just being paranoid and narcissistic. In reality, of course, she has changed only his name and the color of his eyes. Why slog through Imagination Land when you’ve got the character right there in your memory and you don’t owe him a damn thing? And Holly doesn’t just behave like a writer; she has a writer’s perceptions. In the middle of sex — satisfying sex — with a man she loves, she finds herself face-to-face with a pile of books on his nightstand. Of course, she tunes out to read the titles on the spines.
Granted, Secrets to Happiness doesn’t have a whole lot of narrative pull. Holly starts out semi-divorced and lonely and meanders through a series of amusing, somewhat disjointed episodes on her way to what promises to be a hopeful resolution. She’s so sensible and clever that we don’t really worry about her judgment. All around her, doleful characters make poor choices, but Holly is morally grounded, which makes her attractive to people who aren’t. When they behave badly, they can count on her to notice, but without being intrusive about it. Holly’s best friend confesses that she has cheated on her husband and wants Holly to meet the guy. But Holly declines, explaining that she feels guilty even knowing about the infidelity. “Somebody should feel guilty,” she adds, “and I tend to feel all the feelings in the room.” Amazingly, she can pull off a statement like that without being tiresome or priggish.
In the end, what makes Dunn’s novel such a pleasure to read is the very thing that keeps it from being a breathless page-turner: Holly’s singular spirituality. She may be as baffled as everyone else about how to achieve happiness, but she also knows that happiness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In a world — fictional and non- — where doing a good thing gets you accused of having a messiah complex, and doing whatever you want is justified as following your path, Holly never stops trying to figure out where her duty lies. Underneath it all — the sex, the shopping, the city — she’s an old-fashioned heroine. Also funny.
Jincy Willett’s most recent novel is The Writing Class. Photo of Sarah by Lizzie Himmel. Secrets to Happiness by Sarah Dunn, 277 pp., Little, Brown & Company, $23.99