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'Happy Are the Happy' spins a lively cluster of stories around a Parisian couple and their social network

Infidelity, children, and pasta are the stuff of life in 21 interlinked stories about a sparring Parisian couple and their connections.

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Happy Are the Happy
By Yasmina Reza, translated by John Cullen
Other Press,
160 pp.

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At a spare 160 pages, Yasmina Reza’s latest novel can easily be read in a single sitting. Presented as 21 interlinked short stories whose titles bear the names of 18 characters (three get second acts), keeping the characters fresh will be to the reader's advantage. Reza, an internationally renowned playwright best known for "Art" and "God of Carnage" – both Tony Award winners, both dissections of societal expectations – clearly draws on her dramatic, even cinematic (she’s also a screenwriter) expertise: ironically, to see Happy Are the Happy would be easier on the audience, but to read carefully, intentionally, is the more rewarding experience.

Through connections and deceptions that are revealed from story to story, Reza’s 21 vignettes combined represent a microcosm of Parisian society. She makes a structural nod toward Arthur Schnitzler’s century-plus-old play, "La Ronde," in which the scenes dovetail one into the other with overlapping characters. Although Reza channels Jorge Luis Borges for her title – which serves as the novel’s epigraph: “Happy are those who are beloved and those who love/ And those who can do without love./ Happy are the Happy” – happiness, alas, for her characters proves elusive.

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At the center of Reza’s mixed company is a married couple, journalist Robert Toscano and his lawyer wife Odile, who begin and end this roundabout tragicomedy of (not-enough) manners. The sparring pair fight over cheese in the opening chapter and travel logistics in the penultimate. In between, they raise children, care for aging parents, dissect conversations with friends and acquaintances … and when opportunities arise, enjoy their lovers.

Bedhopping seems to be quite the recurring habit among the extended Toscano circle. Odile’s mother has spent decades in betrayed misery – most recently, she’s taken to begging her husband not to insist on cremation so at least in death she might be the only one to share his final resting place.

Odile’s friend has the miserable revelation that her married lover – who also happens to be Robert’s best friend – will never leave his wife and children.

A famous actress chooses a certain bar as the venue for a media interview so she might spy on her cheating lover. The philanderer treats his women badly, but he’s especially solicitous of his elderly friend who is also close to Odile’s father.

Between the Toscanos, the characters are many, including a young man who believes he’s Celine Dion, a beloved doctor who pays to be abused by prostitutes, a lonely woman who asks her dead father for advice about her lovers, a psychiatrist/psychoanalyst with a sadistic past, and still others. Somehow, within three degrees of separation, they all lead back to Robert and Odile.

Reza, ever the sharp observer of human interaction, is surely aware that to retain the intimate details of the Toscanos’ interconnected orbit requires diligence. As if in self-deprecating, humorous recognition, Reza presents Odile in her titular introductory chapter repeatedly trying to read her book, distracted by another late-night tiff with Robert. As Odile peruses the same passage for the seventh time, she asks herself, “Now who exactly is Gaylor?” and continues to flip back pages “to figure out who Gaylor is.” A few pages later, Odile tries again to follow the story, but this time she’s caught wondering, “Who’s Raoul Toni?,” even as her eyes begin closing.

Reza’s readers, too, might begin “Rémi Grobe” which appears half-way through the novel, and require a few flip backs to remember that he gets disparaged in “Odile Toscano,” claimed as best friend in “Loula Moreno,” and is then someone else in his own chapter. Is such diligence necessary to be happy with “Happy”? Surely you could just lightly enjoy the stories – between affairs, aging, gambling, making pasta, confessing, and more, you’ll find plenty for a memorable read. But of course, there’s so much more if you take your time.

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Here’s the ultimate test of attention: after the final page, go back to the 21 named chapters in the “Table of Contents,” and insert the name(s) that connect one chapter to the next. The most you’ll need is three: to relate “Odile Toscano” in the third chapter to “Vincent Zawada” in the fourth, for example, requires connection to Robert, then Virginie. To bridge to the fifth chapter, “Pascaline Hutner,” requires the insertion of Jean then Robert. The puzzle awaits.…  

Will such deliberation be worth the effort? Absolutely. Because such meticulous attention will reward readers with the power to be an omniscient voyeur. And in Reza’s Parisian playground, that’s surely an offer too entertaining, even enlightening, to refuse.

Terry Hong writes Book Dragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.