We don't want to acknowledge it, but our lives are more transactional than we care to admit. We make trade-offs, weigh accounts, seek payback. Is our complicated relationship with money the root of the resentment grinding away in our hearts? We pretend wealth doesn't matter even as we bristle over its absence.

But here's a better question: Does all this psychological and financial accounting make us happy? Joan Silber's characters wrestle with the idea in her exceptional new novel "Secrets of Happiness," which ranges from Manhattan and Queens to Leeds, Bangkok and Phnom Penh as Silber considers what we owe ourselves and each other and how we complicate our paths to contentment.

Like her dazzling novel "Improvement," which won the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, "Secrets of Happiness" follows a series of loosely connected characters, starting with Ethan, an attorney in New York. Ethan has just learned that his father has a second family: two teenage sons and a secret Thai wife, the hostess at one of the family's favorite restaurants and server of a paternity petition seeking financial support.

Faced with this betrayal, Ethan's mother decides to move to Thailand for a year. Why Thailand? Why not? She won't cut her trip short even when her estranged husband's health fails. After all, his second wife is caring for him now; he's not her responsibility. Or is he?

The push and pull of commerce and love plays out in other family disasters throughout "Secrets of Happiness," each chapter so well constructed and compelling it could stand as a separate story. Every character knows someone else in the book, and as lives bump against each other, bruises result.

Joe, Ethan's half-brother, is flummoxed by the wild behavior of his younger brother and demands a troubling IOU from his ex-girlfriend, who borrowed money from him. Maribel, a production assistant in the U.K., embarks on an affair with a married American from a wealthy family. Rachel's brother Saul is dying and has just split up with his boyfriend, who has a new lover. Tara, a filmmaker raised in Nepal, struggles with her sister's addiction, while Bud flees the confining reach of his conservative family in search of freedom.

The easy, uncluttered prose reveals the connections between characters without artifice, and Silber can't resist highlighting life's paradoxes. ("Nobody hates money," Joe's father tells him, but in the end money can't save the man from poor health or himself.) Silber also wields a deliberate dry humor: "She'd been an English major in college, perfect preparation for not having a job," Joe says of his ex.

Sex, money, travel, family, love: Which is most likely to provide a happy ending? Silber's characters do the math and are surprised to find that sometimes missteps and bad luck add up to unexpected contentment. If that's not exactly happiness, it's sometimes close enough.

Connie Ogle is a book critic in Florida.

Secrets of Happiness
By: Joan Silber.
Publisher: Counterpoint, 288 pages, $27.