By Heather Harpham. (Henry Holt, 300 pages, $27.)
It's reassuring, sometimes, to pick up a book that you know will have a happy ending, and surely a book called "Happiness" must be one of them. But check out the cover illustration: A little girl is leaping into an abyss. Clearly, harrowing things must take place before happiness is achieved.
This memoir is the story of Heather Harpham's daughter, Gracie, who was born with a rare condition that prevented her body from making red blood cells. At first, doctors think she will outgrow the syndrome, but month after month, the infant needs blood transfusions in order to stay alive. She'd "pink up," Harpham writes, and then, over the next few weeks, grow pale and listless until another transfusion was needed.
What might save her, the doctors finally say, is a bone-marrow transplant, an excruciating, risky procedure that would wipe out Gracie's blood through massive doses of chemotherapy and replace it with the healthy stem cells of someone else. The best stem cells come from a sibling. But Gracie is an only child, and Harpham's relationship with Gracie's father, Brian, is fraught: He had not wanted children, and when she got pregnant, they separated.
So, you see, not a lot of happiness so far.
Harpham's writing is tender and frank; Gracie's character comes alive on the page — she's a spunky, funny child who accepts her illness stoically. She smells of "French-milled soap and sourdough bread, almost too good to bear." Harpham also writes honestly of her relationship with Brian — the cracks and fissures between them began with his initial rejection of their baby, but the problems continue because of her own prickliness.
"Happiness" is a fast read, a compelling story about life and death, illness and health, and, above all, family.
Heather Harpham will be at Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., at 7 p.m. Aug. 24.
I Liked My Life
By Abby Fabiaschi. (St. Martin's Press, 262 pages, $25.99.)
In her touching debut novel, Abby Fabiaschi draws us into a family's life at a heartbreaking juncture. Maddy Starling is a self-assured, intelligent, no-nonsense mom with a well-providing husband, Brady, and a skittish but lovable teenage daughter, Eve. The three live an apparently happy, privileged, upper-income life and seem to have everything they could possibly want.
That is, until Maddy leaps from a building and kills herself.
We meet Maddy in a kind of purgatory where her unfinished business is to help her family move on without her, to launch them into happy lives. As a ghostly force, she can nudge their thoughts, plant seeds of advice and try to soften the feelings of grief, guilt and abandonment that her death has caused them.
Maddy sets out to find the perfect new companion for Brady, someone who can meet his intellectual standards and yet energize his soft side. And of course, this perfect creature has to be a great mom-substitute for Eve. She finds the delightful Rory Murray and sublimely engineers their meeting.
We follow Brady and Eve through their sorrow and self-accusations as they struggle to find a new normal, an agonizing journey aided by the discovery of Maddy's diary — and by Rory's unexpected understanding of the purgatory they both are in. They can't move on until they are at peace with why Maddy left.
Under all the lovely prose and family struggles, the reader can't help but turn every page with a nagging, almost irritating hunger to know: Why did Maddy kill herself?
All is revealed, but you won't read it here. Look for more intoxicating fiction from Abby Fabiaschi.