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Thursday, January 27, 2022

'Happiness For Beginners' by Katherine Center


From the BLURB: 

Helen Carpenter can’t quite seem to bounce back. Newly divorced at thirty-two, her life has fallen apart beyond her ability to put it together again. So when her annoying younger brother, Duncan, convinces her to sign up for a hardcore wilderness survival course in the backwoods of Wyoming—she hopes it’ll be exactly what she needs. 

Instead, it’s a disaster. It’s nothing like she wants, or expects, or anticipates. She doesn’t anticipate the surprise summer blizzard, for example—or the blisters, or the rutting elk, or the mean pack of sorority girls. And she especially doesn’t anticipate that her annoying brother’s even-more-annoying best friend, Jake, will show up for the exact same course—and distract her, derail her, and . . . kiss her. 

But it turns out sometimes disaster can teach you exactly the things you need to learn. Like how to keep going, even when you think you can’t. How being scared can make you brave. And how sometimes getting really, really lost is your only hope of getting found. 

Happiness for Beginners is Katherine Center at her most heart-warming, captivating best—a nourishing, page-turning, up-all-night read about how to get back up. It’s a story that looks at how our struggles lead us to our strengths. How love is always worth it. And how the more good things we look for, the more we find.

‘Happiness for Beginners’ was the 2015 women’s fiction novel by American author Katherine Center. 

It has been a rocky, rocky start to 2022. Omicron got me. Australian summer has been unrelenting. Everything has been thrown off kilter and the last thing I felt like doing with a foggy head and post-Covid chest infection (oh yeah, severe asthmatic triple-boosted still felt that rona bite!) – the last thing I was even capable of doing was reading, for pleasure. It’s been an uphill battle to get back into the swing … enter; Katherine Center. A new-to-me author I discovered in 2020 and instantly appreciated that she had a backlist I could drip-feed to myself when the slumps got deep. Which I finally did this week, and with ‘Happiness for Beginners.’

Now – before I give you the lowdown, just know that yes indeed, this book is undoubtedly a by-product of the 2012 bookish fever for ‘Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail’ by Cheryl Strayed. It’s the story of Helen Carpenter who decides that a year after her divorce was finalised, she’s going to finally regain control of her life by doing a wilderness survival course that’s so far outside her comfort zone, she’s going to be in a new stratosphere of self-improvement. The only thing is; her younger brother’s annoying best friend Jake is tagging along – not only for a lift to the camp, but on the wilderness trek itself. Helen has never thought twice about Jake in all the years she’s known him; but suddenly this ten-years-younger than her upstart is clouding her head and ruining her very much solo mission of self-discovery 

What follows is the 3-week long trek, its trials and tribulations (made worse by the fact that Helen is the oldest person on the hike, everyone else is a 20-something college student doing this for credit) and the fact that Jake has revealed how long he’s been in love with his best friend’s sister, but also that he can’t pursue her. Much as he’d like to, and – to Helen’s surprise – she’d like him to. 

Okay. I loved this book! It is like ‘Wild’ but without the unrelenting sombreness of it all (and while – yes – Helen’s divorce is the catalyst for her adventure, she also has familial grief she’s unknowingly working through.) Something I love about Center’s books is that you know she’s put the work in; I thought it with 'Things You Save in a Fire' (unsurprised to learn that her husband is a volunteer firefighter), and it comes through here too. She does actually walk us in Helen’s heavy, blister-busting boots as she experiences a wilderness adventure and the practicalities and hurdles thereof. She doesn’t go overly mushy with the self-discovery and being one with nature stuff; instead she predicates Helen’s slow transformation on her ability to recognise her own limitations and patterns, and being willing to connect with people and trust in herself. I loved it! 

But let’s not pretend I don’t drool over Katherine Center’s beautiful books for anything as much as the romances. And the one in ‘Happiness’ is a doozy! Jake is the young, fresh as a penny popular college guy - Helen is his best friend’s older sister, and she feels every one of the years she’s got on Jake. But they have such spark, and the unrequited, slow-burn of it all is intoxicating! I think I also loved this romance because it did remind me of the one in my favourite Center book thus far, 'Things You Save in a Fire' – which also had a kind of “himbo” love interest (except Center’s male characters are not unintelligent; they’re actually more emotionally intelligent and very much have Labrador-qualities of good guys loving on jaded and hurt women, giving them patience, space, and understanding that makes everything so much more delicious!)

Yes this is a head-tip to ‘Wild’ and probably capitalising on the Strayed-mania of it all (it kinda more reminds me of that ‘Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life’ episode when Lorelai wants to have the book-experience… along with hundreds of other fans.) I don’t care, I think Center did a smashing job of taking a band wagon and making it her own. 


P.S. - Helen's brother Duncan in 'Happiness' is the hero of 'What You Wish For' which I have also read and really liked, but didn't review because it was kinda just okay (3/3.5) but now knowing that Duncan from his book is the Duncan in that book ... and that Center's books all exist in a connected-universe? Ummm, I think I have to go back and re-read all of them and in order one day! 

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