Remember the quarter-life crisis? Its prominence in the discourse harks back to a more innocent era, when stories about young urbanites couldn’t be faulted for omitting floods or wildfire smoke and when no U.S. presidential candidate actively fighting multiple felony charges had ever led polls in key battleground states.
Although Naoise Dolan’s The Happy Couple takes place in the present-day British Isles and its characters are generally aware of the dire state of the world, its characters are principally focused on understanding their own loves and libidos. The novel brings a more authentic perspective on sexuality than readers might have found a decade or two ago — both members of the eponymous couple are bisexual — but its core concerns are timeless.
That gives the book a certain universal appeal, but also presents a challenge: this is not the first will-they-or-won’t-they wedding story ever told. The author takes a kaleidoscopic approach to storytelling, rotating among the perspectives of friends and family members surrounding the eponymous pair of betrothed.
Each character intrigues, but in a relatively short novel — the audiobook runs five and a half hours — it’s hard not to feel cheated of deeper dives into the characters whose eternal happiness is most immediately in question.
In a situation involving some intentional ignorance, bride-to-be Celine is in a love triangle with her fiancé Luke and his ex-boyfriend Archie. Early in the book, Luke walks out on his own engagement party to accompany Celine’s ex-girlfriend to a hotel. For the author, that’s a bold card to play: Luke’s mistreatment of Celine is so egregious, it’s hard for the reader to empathize with the characters until we apprehend the dynamics of this lopsided relationship.
We eventually get there, more or less, but Dolan seems determined to frustrate readers who want these characters to properly explain themselves. The narrative flits around so we meet Celine’s sister, Luke’s friend (another ex), and spend considerable time with Archie, who’s also being strung along by Luke. When we finally get into Luke’s head, we find a perceptive but dispassionate guy who has a hard time blaming himself for the miseries others seem to invite in accommodating his commitment to never committing.
Audiobook narrators Ayoola Smart and Ben Seymour play it bone-dry, amplifying a sense of emotional distance and exacerbating a shortcoming of Dolan’s writing: although the characters’ life experiences are quite different, their sardonic voices are not. There’s a lot of verbal jousting, but it’s all strained and performative. With lasting joy seemingly elusive, the characters fall back on brittle humor and fleeting pleasures.
If we’re all going to be so miserable, why not just say to hell with it and talk about global warming?