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Human Happiness

by Brian Fawcett

In his new memoir, essayist and fiction writer Brian Fawcett offers a thoughtful and beautifully written dissection of the long-standing relationship between two people who could rarely stand one another: his parents. While that duelling duo never truly reconciled, Fawcett has ultimately written a love story, albeit one that takes place between another embattled pair: the author and his
alpha-male father.

Fawcett’s previous books have blurred boundaries between fiction, journalism, politics, and memoir, and have often been very personal in nature. In his latest, he questions the concept of happiness espoused by his parents’ generation – in particular, its emphases on privilege, material comfort, and a lack of guilt. Key to his inquiry is the increasingly fractured nature of the contemporary family.

The author’s father, Hartley, was aggressive, unforgiving, and competitive, both at work and at home. His mother, Rita, believed in family unity at all costs, though she openly confessed to her son that she hated her husband, who refused to comfort her at the best of times, and especially while she fought breast cancer. The marriage lasted more than a half-century until Rita’s cruel death following a stroke, but there was a cost paid by the next generation. The author, his brother, and his two sisters have gone through a total of 14 divorces trying to avoid their parents’ mistakes.

In skilful prose, Fawcett sets his parents’ combat in social and historical context, and explores how his own coming of age allowed him to view their struggles more clearly. In a pair of particularly revealing chapters, he interviews each of his parents, asking them the same set of questions about love, sex, society, and religion, eliciting responses light years apart.

Rita’s death releases Hartley from the unhappy relationship, transforming his personality in the process. He lives to be over 100 and exposes a romantic and sensitive side his son had never before noticed. As Fawcett comes to see how much he shares his father’s difficult traits, they reach a new understanding. The book’s structural build-up to this reconciliation makes for a profoundly moving reading experience.