Happy Now?, Katherine Shonk’s first novel, came out in hardcover in the spring of 2010 and in paperback a year later. Though it received glowing reviews in the New York Times and Publishers Weekly, among other places, it didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. True, it was a physically small book, and rather than striving for grand Great American Novel-worthy themes, it concerned itself with domestic details: a few weeks in the life of Claire Kessler, a Chicago artist, after her husband, Jay, jumped off the balcony of a downtown apartment building on Valentine’s Day. But still—Happy Now? should have been celebrated! It should have topped best-seller lists. People should have been reading it on the train and in coffee shops, displaying it prominently as a sign of discriminating literary taste.
Because what Shonk accomplished is nearly miraculous: she took material that could have been painfully maudlin and instead created one of the most honest and bitingly funny portraits of grief in contemporary fiction without, as many writers might (and have), resorting to broad farce or easy, cathartic hugs. (In the book’s longest-running joke, Jay leaves Claire not a mere suicide note but a multipart suicide binder.) We know, just by living, that love doesn’t cure all psychic wounds and marriage doesn’t guarantee a happy ending, but how often do you see that in a book, especially one as intelligent and precisely detailed and, yes, funny as this one?