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'Happy' Isn't So Happy, But It Packs A Punch

Every now and then, you find a book that's thinly plotted and has a slightly confusing, almost infuriating structure — but it's impossible to put down. The French writer Yasmina Reza has achieved exactly that with Happy are the Happy, a collection of twenty short, interconnected stories that crackle with emotion and playfulness.

Reza packs a lot into a very slim volume — just 145 pages. There's the vast array of characters who appear and disappear, sometimes fleetingly, sometimes in full — a teacher, a journalist, a film star, a chauffeur, a government official, retirees, and a couple of businessmen, to name just a few. Then there's the range of subjects — the complications of marriage, the fumbling at the start of a relationship, the joy and pain of parenthood, the intense longing of desire, the insanity and sting of infidelity, the agony of ageing and the finality of death. These are stories of men and women who are also parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends and acquaintances.

Reza surprises you constantly with characters who seem marvelous, until you actually meet them. One couple fervently believes another couple — friends of theirs — are in love; jealous of that imagined love, they're blind to the strain their friends' marriage is under; a cancer doctor is simply wonderful, till we discover he is burdened by the very real baggage he's still carrying from a difficult childhood.

It would be fair to say that despite the title – inspired by a poem by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges – there's not a lot of happiness in the book. Mostly there's pain and confusion; the moments of happiness are small and almost fleeting, short-lived.

Reza is a terrific observer of the rhythms of people and relationships. Her writing is amusing and insightful. I picture this as a much-longer book that she ruthlessly cut to its barest essentials; we learn just enough about each character to bring them alive and no more. The dialogue, for the most part, is delightful, as you'd expect from a novelist and playwright who's won two Tony Awards. And in the hands of John Cullen, who translated the book from the French, it appears to have lost none of its vitality.

The very short interlinking stories — in some cases no more than three or four pages, sometimes even shorter — might leave the reader disoriented. It's a structure that places a special burden on the writer not to lose the reader. Reza sometimes meets the challenge, but often fails. If you're the scrupulous reader who needs to understand and remember each connection in every story, Happy are the Happy will be frustrating. But the overall picture it paints is superb enough that after a while its flaws stop bothering you. At least, they stopped bothering me.

Also, if you're looking to understand more about France, you likely won't. The people that inhabit this book live in their own bubble. Politics and the events of the wider world barely interrupt their lives. Most of the book is set in Paris, but it could be anywhere, really. Some of the stories wander into cliché territory: Surely not all the French are having affairs? But even when a story feels like a cliché, Reza finds her way out of it. Yes, some of the women are in love with married men, but there's also the man, normally used to moving from one affair to another, who suddenly finds himself facing the "catastrophe of emotion" as he struggles with his behavior.

With Happy are the Happy, Reza has pulled off something both unexpected and magical in a very small book that packs a real punch.

Nishant Dahiya is NPR's Asia editor.

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Nishant Dahiya