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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Denis Robert

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To purchase Happiness

Title: Happiness
Author: Denis Robert
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 200 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Happiness - US
Happiness - UK
Happiness - Canada
Le bonheur - Canada
Le bonheur - France
Das Glück - Deutschland
  • French title: Le bonheur
  • Translated by John Innes

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Our Assessment:

C : clever presentation, but not much beyond that

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Australian . 1/12/2009 Emma Tom
Die Welt . 19/3/2005 Hanns-Josef Ortheil

  From the Reviews:
  • "Unfortunately Robert's economy of expression does not extend to the excision of cliches. (...) The line-by-line cliches, however, aren't nearly as irritating as the monstrous meta cliche of its coupling between a married, middle-aged man with little to recommend him and a much younger woman who is framed as an excitingly risque literary creation but is really little more than a hackneyed male fantasy. (...) While Happiness may pop the corks of thrillseekers who like their mainstream porn values discreetly packaged beneath a belletristic exterior, those of us unmoved by the literary equivalent of yaketing saxing will need something more." - Emma Tom, The Australian

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Happiness is a he said/she said novel: every odd-numbered (right-hand) page is written from the man's perspective, every even-numbered (left-hand) page is written from the woman's. The novel is an account of their relationship, from a first sizing each other up through a long period of sexual frenzy to an encounter months after they'd drifted apart. It's told in bite-sized pieces: almost all of the entries are succinct, often consisting of merely a brief description or impression. There isn't much to this novel -- literally or otherwise.
       He's an apparently successful writer, with a wife and three children, and almost forty; she is ten years his junior -- and also married. Both continue to maintain their domestic lives throughout their affair: it's easy for the writer to get away from home, as he has always liked to hole up in hotels when he's working, while her husband -- who is almost as old as her father -- is described as a complete loser immersed in his own work who seems satisfied with the most occasional sex (and who certainly isn't satisfying her). But their 'real lives' largely remain a mystery (including such questions as how they wound up with their mates, especially her): this is a novel of their fantasy lives with each other.
       It's a fantasy life because ... well, it's presented pretty much like a (pseudo-realistic -- emphasis on the pseudo) fantasy novel. She is everything he could ask for -- at least in this one regard (and he doesn't ask for any others ...). As he tells her:

'You were made for sex, you should do nothing else.'
       She seems to agree, and while she presumably leads some sort of life beyond her encounters with the author, this account is largely a record of her obsession and involvement with him -- all of which is almost entirely sexual.
       Of course, that means there are a lot of moments such as: "I unpack my cock, stiff with waiting" (huh ?), and partying like it's 1999:
     We fuck our way through the end of the millennium. We're lost in the new night that will last for a thousand years. Rootless and fearless, we go one fucking, roused only by the frenzy inside us. We fuck because that is how we conquer death.
       Etc., etc.
       She obviously has some issues:
I've always been fascinated by prostitution. The lack of emotion reassures me. Not to be obliged to feel affection, to be free of any attachment, to become an object to be used and with a price, all that lifts a great weight from me.
       Indeed, he likes taking her to sex clubs and having others have their way with her; still, he also comes to find: "Her submissiveness is exhausting." But all she seems to want to do is to continue to barrel down this path:
I want him to use me for his pleasure, and thus for mine. I do not want love and above all I do not want his respect.
       No doubt she fulfils some males' fantasies perfectly. (In the book's only funny moment she takes a 'test' in Elle: "The result told me that I was 'an easy lay'. I find this description rather offensive.") But even the writer finally seems a bit overwhelmed, running out of ideas of what to do with her. Eventually it dawns on him (though readers will have come to this conclusion many, many pages earlier): "Sex can be a lobotomy."
       Meanwhile, she's the one who finally pegs the whole relationship (and book):
     None of our experiences tells me anything about myself.
       Indeed, that is the overwhelming flaw of this book, that it says so little about these characters. (That what it does say about them suggests that they are so utterly unrealistic (and unlikeable) doesn't help either.) Sure, there's something to be said for erotic fantasies and wildly imagined sexual behavior, but Robert's feels particularly self-indulgent -- and isn't very sexy. The back-and-forth, limited to bursts of description and (attempts at) insight, can't convey the complexities of this relationship and these two people, even if one wanted to take them seriously; there's little more than sensationalism on display here.
       In the extremes he describes -- especially the role of the woman -- Robert may mean to provoke, but without making more of the characters themselves it doesn't feel like much of a fight. This is fantasy so well-worn and silly that it's impossible even to get in any way hot and bothered about it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 May 2010

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Happiness: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French journalist and author Denis Robert was born in 1958.

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