The Secrets of Happiness (by Lucy Diamond)

It’s a couple of years now since I first read one of Lucy Diamond’s novels. I liked her characters and the way the plot worked, and have gradually acquired a few more since then. I was given ‘The Secrets of Happiness’ last Christmas, and have just finished reading it. I thought it would take me a week or more, as it’s not a short novel at about 460 pages. But I liked it so much that I kept reading, and completed it in just three days.

The story, like everything else I’ve read by this author, revolves around family relationships. The main protagonists in this book are Rachel and Becca, who are step-sisters, about eight years apart in age, and not particularly close. Rachel was always well-behaved and did what she was expected to do: a good job, a successful marriage, three children, a large and nicely kept house. At least, that’s how Becca saw her. Becca was more of a rebel, but also looked up to her sister when they were growing up.

We meet Rachel first, on her way to Manchester on a secret mission which we don’t learn about until much later in the book. Unfortunately she doesn’t get to her destination; disaster happens just after she leaves the railway station, and she’s then out of the picture for a while. Her neighbour, who was looking after her children for an hour or so after school, phones Becca in a panic when Rachel does not appear…

The plot covers just a few weeks, as Becca becomes involved in her sister’s family, and realises that her life was nowhere near as perfect as she had thought. Mabel is thirteen, blue-haired, with badly bitten nails, and decidedly hormonal. Scarlett is ten, and miserable without the family dog, who no longer lives with them. Luke is just five, a likeable little boy who is starting to discover just how mean some children can be… and Rachel herself has had many stresses in the past year, which Becca knew nothing about.

What I liked best about this book was the characterisation. The contrast between Rachel and Becca is nicely drawn; they grew up in the same household (Becca was only a year old when her mother married Rachel’s father) but have very different values. Both have been grieving the loss of Rachel’s father - the only father-figure Becca ever knew - who died about a year before the story starts. Becca used to enjoy art and crafts, but has drifted, working in a bar, while flat-sharing; she is thirty, but has no idea what she wants to do, or how to get out of her rut.

Inevitably there are romantic pairings - predictable from the first meetings, one with an unlikely coincidence near the end of the book - but they’re quite low-key. The focus is on the family, and the gradual thawing of the relationship between Rachel and Becca. I’m not sure why I found it so gripping, as there isn’t a great deal of plot; but I could barely put it down. The writing is somewhat informal, switching viewpoint with sometimes confusing rapidity, but, as with other books I have read by this author, I soon got used to it.

The one thing I did not appreciate was the amount of bad language. Even Scarlett uses words she should barely have been aware of, and the adults’ conversations and thoughts regularly degenerate into four-letter words that, in my view, were both unnecessary and unrealistic. I was particularly shocked by the way Becca’s new romantic partner used one of the worst words as a supposed compliment after a date. It ruined the moment, as far as I was concerned.

The excess of bad language means I’m reluctant to lend the book to friends who would otherwise have enjoyed it, and makes my recommendation somewhat guarded. If you don’t mind swearing on almost every page, and enjoy character-based women’s fiction, then this would be an excellent holiday read. But if four-letter-words disturb you, give it a miss.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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