The Pursuit of Happiness by Douglas Kennedy

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The Pursuit of Happiness is a 2001 fiction book written by the american novelist Douglas Kennedy. The plot, set in the United States,  deals with the history of Kate Malone’s family during McCarthyism in the 1950’s. After her mother’s death, Kate Malone gets a mysterious phone call from a woman whose name is Sara Smythe, giving her, later, a script about the Malone’s life a few times before Kate Malone was born.

The book is subdivided into four major parts respectively called Kate, Sara, Sara, Kate. Subsequently, the structure is constant enough as each part is divided into a certain amount of chapters from seven to thirty pages in average. As you may know, I’m a French native speaker but in fact I don’t read much books in French despite those for school assignments, therefore I decided to read this one in French although I don’t appreciate much reading a book in a translated version. Since Douglas Kennedy is a contemporary author acclaimed by many people around the world I had heard about him. He’s been recognized for his works and some of them have been turned into movies such as The Woman In the Fifth starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Ethan Hawke (interesting movie by the way). Consequently, as I love contemporary dramatic  and realistic novels I decided to discover this author that I heard much about.

Something particularly staggered me while reading this book which is a reaction I never had once before as regards the characters. I thought each character was the same. Sara Smythe is one of the main characters, thus she is very present in the book; however I couldn’t bear her at a certain point of the plot. Despite being a complete flat character, she also is a stock one, which seems like a massive drawback to me in the genre of fiction. Moreover, at the end of the book, I just felt like I was finding back each character traits in another character and so on, eventually considering every character. Besides, the first-person narrative truly bothered me. I usually like this kind of narrative with the inside narrator, although I do also enjoy third-person narratives a lot, I did not like it in this novel, taking into account of the characters’ personality traits. Last but not least, the ending was too predictable to the detriment of the gripping intrigue! The reader is not stunned in any way, in my opinion, by the occurring events, which applies to the characters’ consistent behavior.

Nevertheless, I loved the importance that the historical background had in Douglas Kennedy’s novel. Postwar years and American anti-communism response to its greatest fear after WWII  belong to a high rank in the plot structure. On the other hand,  I actually enjoyed its theme. The epigraph, a quotation from the eighteenth-century British poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold, poses the question of doing something the right or bad way with luck or not by stating the thesis of the novel which could be rephrased as how must one acts in order to be happy with or without luck? Thus, it concerns the notion of pursuit of happiness, which is predominant in the United States. This is the second reason why I wanted to read this book as I studied this idea last year in English class by analysing an excerpt from this same novel.  Furthermore, Kennedy’s prosaic writing style is enjoyable even though it isn’t astonishing. (And I have to say that The Pursuit of Happiness translated in the Pocket edition is quiet horrible, there are a few typing and grammatical mistakes here and there which is a very negative point, however that’s just the translation hopefully. On a brighter note, this edition’s cover and all of their Kennedy covers are beautiful!) The numerous references to historical events, and atmosphere, and the theory that is conveyed in addition to the interesting plot fulfilled with few flashbacks and several twists give the novel a strong base apart from its several drawbacks.

Accordingly, I liked this eight-hundred-page book over-all to be quite honest despite the various negative things I pointed out and I would give it two stars out of five. If you like surrealist drama stories driven by human emotions and feelings dealing with a theme such as happiness, you may like this novel.

If you did read it what did you think of The Pursuit of Happiness or are you eager to read it now? 

 NB: The picture was taken by me.

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