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‘Happy Place’ Review: An Ambitious Emily Henry Novel

3 Stars

Cover of Emily Henry's "Happy Place."
Cover of Emily Henry's "Happy Place." By Courtesy of Penguin Random House
By Angelina X. Ng, Crimson Staff Writer

Emily Henry is one for continuity. Her novel “Happy Place” is the fourth installment in what is jokingly called the EHCU (Emily Henry Cinematic Universe), a series of standalone novels that exist in the same world — as she revealed in a crossover short story “Layover.” With three previous books celebrated for their compelling cast of characters, fascinating backstories, and satisfying romances, “Happy Place” has a lot to live up to. Though it falls short of the brilliance of her previous works, “Happy Place” is still sexy, charming, and meaningful — a book well worth reading for Henry’s fans.

“Happy Place” follows ex-fiancés Harriet, a conflict-avoidant surgical resident, and Wyn, a quick-witted charmer who dances through life. They share a group of close friends that, for the last decade, have scheduled an annual getaway to a small cottage in Maine as a respite from their daily lives. But this year, Harriet and Wyn haven’t told their friends that they have broken up, leaving them lying through their teeth for a week as they pretend to be a couple to avoid breaking their friends’ hearts.

Emily Henry shot to fame for her novels that straddle the genres of contemporary fiction and romance — books that not only focus on the central romance, but also create complicated, vulnerable female protagonists that the reader cannot help but root for. The romances in her novels are satisfying because characters have to earn their Happily Ever After. They need to grow, realize what’s been holding them back, and change their ways before getting together with a romantic partner. In “Beach Read,” the protagonist January has to come to terms with her grief over her father’s death before she ends up with Gus; in “Book Lovers,” Nora must let go of her need to constantly be in control before she gets together with Charlie.

However, Harriet and Wyn’s love story didn’t feel as earned as the romances in Henry’s other novels. Because the narrative relied heavily on the tensions of their fake dating and shared past, the chemistry between them did not have time to mature and develop. While in previous Henry novels, the witty banter between the characters serves to introduce the tension and personalities, the banter between Harriet and Wyn as they fake a happy relationship for their friends felt out of place. Their slow burn romance did not feel like something that had to be earned, and therefore the Happily Ever After, while satisfying, did not feel as deserved.

The book is written in a non-chronological structure that alternates between the Maine cottage set in the present day (with chapters titled “Real Life”) and flashbacks to Harriet’s past (which are titled “Happy Place” and, as the novel progresses to its climax, “Dark Place”). This nonlinear structure, while used successfully in Henry’s “People We Meet On Vacation,” causes the pace of “Happy Place” to suffer. Harriet and Wyn’s physical affection and chemistry in the flashbacks, while palpable, do not reach the dizzying heights of Henry’s previous novels. This may be because she has to juggle the couple’s history while fleshing out the fairly large ensemble cast, as well as developing Harriet’s personal backstory. The angst and yearning that characterized Harriet and Wyn’s relationship in the present-day chapters was therefore not as convincing, seeing as how the characters clearly still had feelings for each other. It was unclear, up until the final third of the book, what was preventing them from being together.

Despite these issues, Henry’s skill at creating compelling, complex characters shines through. This is the first book that Henry has written with such a sprawling ensemble cast, and she is a master at teasing out the tensions between characters. Though some of her characters — such as Parth and Kimmy, the partners of Harriet’s two best friends — feel a little underdeveloped (which is understandable given the number of balls that Henry juggles in this book), the ensemble cast is gloriously messy and perfectly shows the pains of growing up and growing apart.

Henry perfectly captures the complicated, chaotic relationships between Harriet and her two best friends, Cleo and Kimmy. Though the flashbacks to their college days occasionally feel like caricatures of the college experience, the love that Harriet has for her friends, and consequently, her yearning to return to that “Happy Place” with them, was sympathetic and relatable. It made the tensions between the three of them in the present day particularly intriguing against the backdrop of a sleepy Maine town. Henry takes her time to draw out the rifts that emerge between them, slowing down the quick pace of the novel. Henry writes her female characters with an earnestness that makes their squabbles not seem trivial — they are genuine best friends trying to find their way back to each other in a shifting relationship.

At its core, every Henry heroine comes with her own set of insecurities and problems. In “Emily’s Grocery List,” Henry’s newsletter, she wrote: “With January, I worried she’d be too emotional for readers. With Poppy, I worried she’d be too annoying. With Nora, I worried she’d be too sharp. With Harriet, I worried she’d be too spineless.”

Despite her worries, this is where Henry shined in her previous three books: each female character was complex and had their own problems to sort out, and she does right by Harriet, too.

Harriet is a people-pleaser, and Henry delves into her personal history with excruciating detail (though this, admittedly, happens mostly towards the last third of the novel). She desperately believes that she can make everyone happy, and that if she tries hard enough, she can earn love with material achievements in a “disinterested universe.” Harriet’s character is fully fleshed out and consistent with her actions, and despite her faults, Henry makes it clear that Harriet is a good person, motivated by her desire to make the people around her happy. Readers will want the best for Harriet, and it makes her an easy character to root for.

“Happy Place” may not be Henry’s strongest work, but it is undeniably a quintessential Emily Henry novel, fun in its relentless positivity and heartbreaking in its realistic portrayal of growing up. It’s well worth a read for fans of Henry — and for those unfamiliar with her work, it will still be a compelling novel.

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