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How Happy to Be

by Katrina Onstad

How Happy to Be is set in Toronto and revolves around Maxine, a thirtysomething entertainment journalist labouring at the fictional neo-con newspaper The Daily. She doesn’t find her job, or her life, particularly satisfying, and she reminisces about her eccentric upbringing on the West Coast while seeking to lighten her current malaise with regular substance abuse.

Her parents figure in anecdotes as oddball characters who lacked the ability to provide any real guidance; there are hints throughout that Maxine’s childhood wasn’t peachy. Though these hints eventually culminate in the novel’s only real plot twist, it comes too late to justify Maxine’s emptiness. She simply never connects with the reader.

The story is propped up by simplistic assumptions: that our culture is celebrity-driven, that that’s inherently bad, and that it spawns vacuous ghostlike beings, like Maxine, who take too many drugs, have too much sex, are lonely, etc. Where have we heard all this before? The novel is rife with other clichés, too, including an early reference to a cat being a lonely woman’s companion, and thus the ultimate symbol of desperation.

From the outset, Maxine is hardly a sympathetic protagonist. If the novel’s intent was to convey the vacuity of entertainment journalists, then it emphatically succeeds. However, since Onstad herself was a National Post film columnist and currently writes about film and culture for the CBC Arts website, it’s unlikely that she wants the reader to reach that conclusion.

Indeed, while Maxine claims to want to get fired, the reader is never convinced. Why, if the position is so insufferable, does she not simply quit? And since she unambiguously professes to hate the entertainment world, why did she take the job in the first place? Which leads to another question: exactly why is The Daily, Maxine’s supposedly “neo-con” employer, so terrible? In she wanders, exhausted, late, drunk, what-have-you, and yet her editors are incredibly accommodating. Throughout, our protagonist blames her dissatisfaction on everything around her, but never herself. A little introspection would have added a lot of depth.

It’s not that the novel is completely without merit. It has moments of wit, and sometimes Maxine’s paranoia contains welcome hints of self-deprecation. Ultimately, though, How Happy to Be lacks profundity, and the reader is left struggling to identify with the protagonist.


Reviewer: Carrie Fiorillo

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart


Price: $24.99

Page Count: 300 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-7710-6897-2

Released: Jan.

Issue Date: 2006-1

Categories: Fiction: Novels