The Promise of Happiness
by Justin Cartwright
The Judd family appear to deserve, but somehow escape, happiness. Beneath the veneer, this is a family in crisis, as each family member struggles with inadequacy, guilt or failure. Above all, it is the adored and wonderful daughter who has fallen, most spectacularly, from favour.
Charles and Daphne Judd have retired to a sleepy, pretty Cornish village, made famous by its church having once been excavated from the encroaching sand dunes which engulfed it. This should be a picture of a successful, comfortable retirement, except that Charles is haunted by his failing health and prowess, and is seething with resentment at being ousted from the London firm where he once held high status. Daphne also struggles, as her life continues to be dominated by compromise, loss and fruitless attempts to please Charles. Sophie, the youngest child, is a source of great concern and her life of drug addiction and loneliness seems to be derailed from a path of happiness. Charlie, the middle child appears to be very successful - a dot-com millionaire expecting his first child with gorgeous girlfriend Ana. As they plan their wedding it is clear that Charlie has doubts about Ana, and that happiness, strangely, has eluded him too. However this simple tale of family strife should be seen in context. Sophie and Charlie are completely eclipsed by their older sister Juliet, known as Ju-Ju. This harmless nickname belies her true character, as Ju-Ju exerts a tyrannical and paralysing power over both siblings and parents. Set up as the family icon - adored, beautiful, academic and successful, we loathe her even before we meet her. Now add into the equation that she has fallen most spectacularly from grace, having just completed a two-year jail sentence in America, for handling stolen artworks, and the picture is complete. This is a family in crisis.
The book is a cleverly drawn portrait of a single family. The sibling relationships are very convincing, and should fascinate anyone who has considered family favouritism and its corrosive effect. All the characters are engaging, except the central and supposedly charismatic figure of Juliet. Perhaps this is consistent with such magnetic persons - defined by their acolytes, but under scrutiny they just disappear. Sometimes I felt the need for some minor suspension of disbelief as some of the teenage-style dialogue wasn't quite right, and repetition doesn't necessarily mean strength. However, the powerful confrontation between Charles and darling Ju-Ju made up for the shortcomings, and the characters grew in stature, with some surprises, as the book progressed, through an uncomfortable and angry reckoning, to an uneasy conclusion.
This is a book about the elusive and transitory nature of happiness and the Judds are an ordinary family knocked off course by Juliet, who in an act of unthinking foolishness has truly ruined all their lives. The light touch is a clever way to tackle such a serious and well-trodden subject and this book lingers in the mind and poses more questions that it answers.
If you would like to read more go to the Bloomsbury website where there is a a short interview with Justin Cartwright about the book, as well as an extract, reviews, links to Justin's journalism and a reading
guide for the book.