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Happiness for Beginners

Review

Happiness for Beginners

In an interview for THE LOST HUSBAND --- her 2013 novel about a woman who, after the sudden death of her husband, rediscovers who she is by fleeing her hypercritical mother’s home to go live and work on a goat farm --- Katherine Center shared a recurring theme in many, if not all, of her novels. For most of her writing life, she’s been interested in exploring the ways in which people --- mostly women --- bounce back from tragedy. In her latest book, HAPPINESS FOR BEGINNERS, she once again covers similar ground --- this time, dragging her near-broken protagonist through a wilderness survival course to test her mettle.

At 32, Helen Carpenter should be in the prime of her life. Married. A mother with a brood of adoring children. A fulfilling day job to boot. But she has none of those things. Instead, she’s a burned-out elementary school teacher, newly divorced after six years trapped in an unfulfilling union with a man who was more interested in booze than romance or intimacy, with a cantankerous dachshund as her only true companion. In a word, she has become hopelessly and irreparably…pathetic.

Never one to take anything lying down, however, Helen decides to take charge of her life by doing something unexpected. After reading a human-interest story in People about an injured Afghan war vet who reconnects with life after three weeks in the woods, she signs up for a wilderness survival boot camp --- one of the riskiest and most grueling programs she can find. Never mind that she considers running three miles (on a good day) a challenge, Helen is determined to “drive out to Wyoming and have a brave adventure with a bunch of strangers that would totally change not just [her] life but [her] entire personality.”

"Like with any romantic comedy, it’s nearly impossible not to root for Jake and Helen’s first real kiss. But Center keeps herself (and readers) busy by throwing in a few curveballs in the plot."

With such a premise, there’s plenty of room for Center to play around with the story, adding in a frothy concoction of ingredients her fan base has come to know and love: oodles of (mis)adventures, a few teachable moments sprinkled throughout the mayhem, and just the right amount of blush-worthy, romantically charged moments to keep readers’ interests piqued. 

But first, the obstacles. Instead of being surrounded by middle-aged people suffering through recognizable middle-aged problems on the trail, Helen finds herself stuck in a pack full of twenty-somethings --- young twenty-somethings --- all pumped to conquer the wilderness (the men), lose weight (the women) and spend three weeks partying while nurturing a tan (everyone but her). She’s also joined by the one person she’s trying to avoid: Jake, her younger brother’s 22-year-old best friend who, aside from being hopelessly adorable, is head-over-heels in love with her.

As in most Center novels, shenanigans ensue at a steady pace. Over the course of three weeks of bushwhacking through dense forests, erecting and striking base camps, and hiking long distances (all without showering or toilets, mind you), a bevy of quasi-catastrophes take place: an unexpected snowstorm, a near-fatal injury requiring an emergency evacuation of one of the campers, a family of rutting elk. But there are also those of the personal growth sort. Like Helen’s realization that Jake isn’t the immature, goofy frat boy she thought he was. Or the fact that she’s jealous of his burgeoning relationship with a blond beauty named Windy (who just happens to be smart. And nice.). Or the frustrating awareness that she’s thinking far too much about a man --- scratch that, boy --- when she should be thinking about becoming an independent woman.

Like with any romantic comedy, it’s nearly impossible not to root for Jake and Helen’s first real kiss. But Center keeps herself (and readers) busy by throwing in a few curveballs in the plot. For one, there’s Jake’s failing eyesight. There’s also the heavy secret Helen is hiding about her past. And there’s the fact that both Jake and Helen are way too proud to reveal their feelings for each other and take pains to avoid getting hurt.

Is HAPPINESS FOR BEGINNERS formulaic? Sure it is. But it pulls and plucks heartstrings all the same. In the beginning of her three weeks in the wilderness, Helen explains that she hopes to “rise up from the ashes of [her] existence like a really badass phoenix and give life the finger, at last.” While she may not have given life the finger in the long run, perhaps, as her wise grandmother GiGi says, it’s better that way. And isn’t that the whole point of renewal?

Reviewed by Alexis Burling on March 23, 2015

Happiness for Beginners
by Katherine Center

  • Publication Date: March 24, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
  • ISBN-10: 1250047307
  • ISBN-13: 9781250047304