Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Book Review: RECIPE FOR A HAPPY LIFE by Brenda Janowitz

Hannah Goodman is searching for the “recipe for a happy life.” Her beloved, glamorous, wealthy, and often-married grandmother—Vivienne Brushard Goodman Finelli Worthington Rudolph Jones Morganfelder—has advised Hannah for years about what doesn’t bring happiness, but Hannah wants to know what truly does. “Maybe you and I will discover it this summer,” Vivienne says.

And what a summer they have. Hannah—a thirty-four-year-old, intelligent and accomplished Manhattan attorney—escapes the city after a major career disappointment and a big problem with her musician boyfriend. She seeks refuge at Vivienne’s luxurious Hamptons estate, where Hannah reconnects with a man from her past, stumbles upon family secrets, confronts her troubled relationship with her mother, and deals with changes in her life that she never saw coming. Through the joy and sadness of this momentous summer, Hannah finally finds her very own recipe for a happy life.

I absolutely loved Recipe for a Happy Life! It contains all the ingredients of an entertaining, touching, and satisfying read: interesting and well-developed characters, a compelling plot, a vivid setting, and dashes of humor sprinkled into a mix of wise insights and heartbreaking moments. 

While reading Recipe, I often laughed out loud (the scene between Hannah and her boyfriend that sent him into an ambulance is straight out of a hilarious romantic comedy), frequently became teary-eyed (the tough decisions Hannah has to make, her loving relationship with her grandmother, what happens with her mom), and reflected on many questions that Hannah asks herself: “Is this what will be left? When she’s gone, will I be left treasuring the old times we had together? Will all the bad memories turn into joyful ones?” I was on the edge of my seat, eagerly turning the pages as I ran into shocking surprises and wondered what would happen to each character and what choices they would make.

I cared so much about every character because the author made me care. Brenda Janowitz has a gift for crafting characters so colorful and real that they jump off the page and touch your soul. The main characters in Recipe—three generations of women—are all quite different yet fascinating in their own way.

I heard Vivienne’s “slight French accent,” saw her graceful image, and enjoyed all the tidbits of advice about men, beauty, and life that she daintily throws Hannah’s way. (“The key to a happy marriage is for the man to be more in love with the woman than she is with the man.”) I chuckled at the way Hannah sometimes disregards this advice, and I sympathized with her feelings of being physically and socially inferior to her eloquent grandmother who embodies the elegance of a bygone era. (Think Grace Kelly mixed with Audrey Hepburn and a lot of Gloria Swanson).

Vivienne is the type of woman who has always attracted men’s attention, but Hannah hasn’t been quite as lucky. As a teenager in Manhattan, she felt like a “class outcast,” and the devastating way she was treated by a boy after a romantic interlude in Hawaii provides a clue as to why. “He walked by me and pretended he had no idea who I was…but the truth is, I had a feeling this would happen all along.” 

Hannah has eternally wanted to fit in, to live a “normal life,” which she has always found with Vivienne but never with her mother, Gray, a wildly successful photojournalist who has always seemed to care more about her career than her daughter. Gray is so different from Hannah and Vivienne, and although Hannah justifiably tends to view her mother harshly, the events of the summer help Hannah to see Gray from a fresh perspective. The development of this mother-daughter relationship is only one of the many deeply emotional (grab a tissue, people!) aspects of Recipe for a Happy Life.

In addition to her well-drawn and complex characters, I appreciate how Brenda so accurately describes the novel's New York setting and the practices and attitudes of its residents both in the present and the not-so-distant past: 

“Mornings in the Hamptons are different from mornings in New York City. In the city, it’s a hurried affair—a quick shower, throw on clothes that aren’t too wrinkled…but here, morning is a ritual.” 

"Downtown New York City is a very cool place to live now…but when I grew up…no one dared live below Fifty-Seventh Street…the New York City I grew up in was pre-Disney Times Square…”

Right! Yes! So, SO true! Having grown up in NYC around the same time as Hannah, I completely understand. I also loved Hannah’s memories of life before the internet and social media, and how the lack of technology affected teenagers' ability to keep in touch long-distance: “…in a pre-email/Facebook/Internet world, the only mode of communication was letter writing…” (Yup! And then those letters would stop and you'd never hear from that friend again...we sure were living in the Dark Ages, huh?)

I also adored the witty 1950s-ish references, especially those about Vivienne’s former husbands: “The Mattress King of Canarsie” and “Her sixth husband was a former teen idol. I’m not going to say who he was, but you know him.” Recipe for a Happy Life is filled with so many wonderful details like these that add to the richness of an entertaining and meaningful story. And another thought-provoking dynamic of the novel is how the personalities and philosophies of Vivienne, Gray, and Hannah have been subconsciously affected by the very different eras in which they grew up.  

Although Recipe For a Happy Life is a fabulous on-the-beach or by-the-pool read, it’s also perfect for a rainy night, a relaxing weekend, or any time you want to escape into a beautifully written story that will make you think, laugh, cry, and totally relate...because we all want that recipe, don't we? 

Book Info

Title: Recipe for a Happy Life
Author: Brenda Janowitz
My Rating: 5/5 Stars
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (Griffin); July 2013
Genre: Women’s Fiction

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