Justin Cartwright: The promise of happiness

By Reviewed by Penelope Bieder

When beautiful and brilliant English art historian Juliet Judd is hauled before the American judiciary and banged up in prison for two years, for her involvement in the theft of a Tiffany window, her family all react in different ways. She is both first-born and family favourite, quite an achievement in itself.

Her father, Charles, has reluctantly taken early retirement in Cornwall, where he endures his wife Daphne’s ghastly experiments with fish, inspired by her Rick Stein cooking classes. Daphne thinks learning about flower arranging may be a less hazardous occupation. They both drink a lot of good New Zealand chardonnay.

Younger daughter, 23-year-old Sophie, is popping things up her nose (and through her nose in the form of a gold ring) as she has a fling with her advertising agency boss in London. Sophie’s older brother, Charlie, a wealthy IT entrepreneur (selling socks, which he thinks is quite ridiculous) is trying to decide, as he drives up to Loon Lake to collect Juliet from prison, whether he should marry his gorgeous Peruvian girlfriend, Ana.

In this clever, hilarious and moving novel, South African-born, London-based Cartwright tacks back and forwards through one family’s life in a saga that is imbued with empathy and a calm, all-seeing wisdom that is frankly, breathtaking.

His ability to get inside the elder male Judd’s 68-year-old head, as he wilfully pees on John Betjeman’s grave, then just as effortlessly enter the sweet, confused mind of Sophie, is nothing short of stunning.

His examination of the New York art world shows that there isn’t much distinction between the real and imagined there either, but this wonderful novel is more of a dissection of a society that Charles Judd firmly believes has gone to hell. In his increasingly desperate attempts to connect with, or evade, his adult children, he finally comes to believe that the most important thing "is to try to avoid causing unhappiness". He’s just not very good at it.

While Juliet is trying to put her life back together after her release, she is coming to similar conclusions.

She may be the emotional heart of the family — they all adore her — but brother Charlie actually does the hard work of keeping everyone’s spirits up with his optimistic calm outlook.

Subtle, exquisite, exceptional, Cartwright’s work is both devastatingly serious and amusingly disarming. The Promise of Happiness is the best novel I’ve read in ages, and that it is different from the last, excellent Cartwright production (White Lightning) is also awe-inspiring.

* Penelope Bieder is a freelance writer.

* Bloomsbury, $35

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