Review: My Happy Life by Lydia Millet

1933368764_01__aa_sctzzzzzzz_.jpgMy review of Lydia Millet’s My Happy Life appears in the current issue of Eclectica.  I had never heard of Millet till this book reached me–so much for considering myself reasonably well-read. The book has to rank as one of the most unusual novels that I’ve ever read; that it works is something of a miracle, given its very disturbing premise. Here’s the text of the review:

If there ever was a victim of fate, it is the protagonist of My Happy Life. The (nameless) narrator in Lydia Millet’s novel repeatedly undergoes the worst forms of physical and emotional abuse. Abandoned as a baby, she moves from one nightmare foster home to another, where she is molested, raped, and beaten. She is also hit by a car, struck by lightning, and kidnapped.

My Happy Life, however, refuses to be classified as a “Tale of a Victim” (or its ubiquitous evil twin, “Story of a Survivor”). For the narrator of this novel is, strangely enough, happy. She is grateful for all that comes her way; every situation that seems hopeless to us readers is revealed to harbor the seeds of delight for her. When we meet the protagonist at the start of the novel, she has been left to die in a building on the verge of demolition. But this young woman finds humor in her desperate situation, telling us that she has survived by eating the toothpaste and shampoo and soap, but “would not advise” consuming the wall plaster. She sees beauty in the trivial—a pressed gingko leaf, a sliver of glass, and her hospital-supplied paper shoes; “These things”, she reveals, “are lovely.” Her boundless compassion even provides comfort when at the receiving end of brutality. Raped while at school, she thinks of the perpetrator as a warrior who “would never cease wanting” and “never cease trying,” and confesses she loves him.

I’d normally be impatient with a willfully blind narrator who refuses to accept or even acknowledge her abuse, but I was hypnotized by Millet’s astonishing control of her story into devouring this book in one breathless gulp. My Happy Life reminds us anew of what the novel can achieve in the hands of a skilled artist, for here is a voice so convincing that the reader believes the implausible. Millet precisely balances her protagonist’s character on the knife edge between innocence and ignorance, and the result is a superbly realized portrayal of a mentally deficient woman betrayed by the system. The grace with which the heroine transmutes her bleak reality into joyous memories ultimately stands as a devastating indictment of society’s treatment of the less fortunate.

The narrator at times seems to be living in a dream world where (her) perception is more important than reality, and the novel’s prose reflects a similar dream-like quality. At one point, the narrator says:

Back then, when I was young, events were like soft memories are now. In fact I cannot say for sure that those events I am recounting, all of my life before this room, were not just always memories themselves, given to me along with my toenails or eardrums, as a gift.

Millet’s poetic words propel us into understanding and even admiring this young woman, her bizarre optimism becomes wondrous rather than naive.

My to-be-read list is now headed by Millet’s other work; why has it taken me so long to make the acquaintance of this superb writer?

There’s also an interview with Millet in this issue of Eclectica; and Millet’s website, for those who’d like to know more about this  former-editor-at-Hustler-turned-novelist, is at http://www.lydiamillet.net/ And if you still need encouragement to read her work– one of her books is called George Bush, Dark Prince of Love. Resist that!

4 responses to “Review: My Happy Life by Lydia Millet

  1. After I read your review all I could say was “Wow, I want to read this book, too!”. I, of course, had to go find out more about it and was very pleased to see it has been published by Soft Skull Press. After reading a few books from Akashic (another Brooklyn based small press) I have a new found appreciation for books put out by small presses…they publish some real gems.

    Thank you for the great review, Niranjana!

  2. Thanks Lotus! Do let me know what you think of My Happy Life if you get to read it.
    I’m an admirer of small presses too; I think they take chances on new, risky writers that the marketing mavens at the bigger houses often decline.

  3. A happy life is the signature of love.

  4. My doctor just called and said my total cholesterol is 280, they called me in medication and I am shocked and petrified. I was convinced I was healthy as a horse. I am never sick and tired, I only went for a appointment to please my family. I am not the sort of individual who lives on medication and I don’t want to start. You are completely right, some of my friends started off with one medication and now they have bags full, cabinets full, wherever they keep them. Some take 3 a day, some 2 a day and they are getting unhealthier all the time. I am the health fanatic. I thought I was exercising and eating healthy, I am the one always giving advice. Work out, don’t eat steak, take fish oil. I am so afraid, because I don’t want to become one of them. I will not. I go back to my doctor in 2 months, he is in for a shock, I intend to lower my cholesterol through diet (with coconut oil!) and exercise. I know I can do this. I will get back to you and keep you up to date.

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