This is my review of The Promise Of Happiness by Justin Cartwright.
This is the first novel by Justin Cartwright that I have read, and I certainly intend to read more. I found some of the incidents e.g. over Daphne's repeated disastrous attempts at fish cooking made me laugh out loud, and many of the exchanges e.g. Pinteresque crossed wires between Charles and his wife very entertaining – humour and pathos were subtly interwoven, reinforcing each other.
Some aspects of modern life were caricatured, but in an amusing way e.g. the adverts to metamorphose dolphins into cars. References to flowers used for the wedding were also quite striking. Overall. I thought the quality of the writing very high – Cartwright wears his learning lightly and "teaches" the reader at times e.g. in philosophy, Shakespeare's use of flower imagery, without being pretentious.
Having recently visited New York, I admired his vivid descriptions of America – the townscapes, and the horror of life in a women's prison, which rang true.
There was a satisfying twist in the plot concerning Juju's guilt, which I cannot reveal for fear of ruining the story for future readers. Although the family was perhaps irritatingly bourgeois for someone (like me) who does not come from that class, the fact that most of the characters were deeply flawed and in some ways unlikeable did not matter. The interest lay in their interactions and thoughts on the world.
I believe Cartwright is a philosopher by training, and I enjoyed the skill with which he wove ideas on potentially dull topics such as utilarianism – more effectively than in many text books on the subject.
Although I think Juju's ex-lover Davis played a significant role in the plot, I felt there was more scope to develop him as a character and perhaps to introduce him earlier.
Charlie was the most likeable character, perhaps too good to be true although flawed in his passive drifting into a marriage to Ana, about which he was clearly ambivalent. I admired Cartwright for sticking to such similar names for a father and son – Charles and Charlie: confusing, as I am sure many editors would say, but realistic.
The sense of loss and disconnection as one approaches middle age was covered in a poignant way which one may need to be over fifty to appreciate.
The irritation and confusion over the break down of "traditional" attitudes and values was also explored in a thought-provoking way.
Apart from my failure to understand the point about Juju writing cheques for the stolen window because her lover-boss had no money (so was it her own money?), I can find little fault with the plot. Maybe it was a bit repetitious in places i.e. in reinforcing impressions of the characters needlessly e.g. Ana the "glamour puss", but the writing succeeded in building up the tension to the dramatic point at which Charles and Juju met face-to-face at the end.
Overall, the plot was very coherent and the quality of thinking and writing excellent. Writing of this order deserves to win prizes.