Ronnie’s and Jeff’s marriage has been unstable for years. Jeff is drowning in drink and debt, unwilling to open up to Ronnie about his needs or support her in hers, and unable to fulfill his role as father to two little boys. Nonetheless, Ronnie is Jeff’s whole world and, rather than face a divorce, he storms in staggering drunk on the day he’s scheduled to move out, brandishing the shotgun with which he promises to take his own life. During the twelve-hour police standoff that follows, Ronnie—hidden in a safe house with her mother and her mother-in-law—must come to terms with her broken relationships, her family’s sordid history, and her own uncertain future.
Based on real events in her own life, Kathryn Craft’s novel (forthcoming from Naperville’s Sourcebooks) promises a suspense-filled story of a family embracing its strengths and overcoming its failures in the face of tragedy. Unfortunately, The Far End of Happy falls terribly short.
The success of this novel, the author’s second work of fiction, hinges on the suspense of Jeff’s suicide standoff: Will he end his life or get himself the help he needs? Unfortunately, the novel’s heavy reliance on nostalgia and its generally weak character development put all nail biting to an end.
The novel is divided into twelve sections, each one an hour in Jeff’s standoff; each section is written in rotating points-of-view, shifting between Ronnie, her mother, Beverly, and her mother-in-law, Janet. Throughout those twelve hours, all three women look back on their lives, their relationships, and their many, many regrets. While it seems right that such trauma should inspire these reflections, they are so heavy-handed and ubiquitous in Craft’s novel that they dilute any sense of urgency and lend the whole thing the air of a melodramatic diary reading.
Flat characterization causes problems throughout the novel as well. Ronnie is a dissatisfied housewife who would have liked to have been a writer. Beverly is a single mother who’s spent her whole life chasing men. Janet is the kind to use her money to manipulate her family. And the two little boys, Andrew and Will, are wise and compassionate beyond their years. There is little more to any one character. Jeff, however, is the most problematic, as his two-dimensionality further waters down the novel’s intended suspense. Readers are introduced first to present-day Jeff, an alcoholic and liar who emotionally abuses his wife, and Ronnie’s flashbacks do not redeem him, either. Scenes of their early relationship depict a man who ridicules his ex-girlfriends, hates his mother, and coerces Ronnie into marrying him at the expense of all her own goals and dreams. There is no version of Jeff for readers to root for, no inkling that he could become a good husband or father, and so, crass as it may seem, there’s no real reason to be too concerned about the outcome of the standoff.
Although Craft’s work has earned praise in the past as raw and emotional, the overwrought dialogue and a narrative filled with clichéd turns-of-phrase and repetitious expressions of regret in The Far End of Happy turn what might have been a highly suspenseful, thought-provoking family drama into a trite, overlong parade of nostalgia.
May 2015, Sourcebooks
$14.99, paperback, 368 pages
—Reviewed by Sarah M. Weber