The Temptation to Be Happy, by Lorenzo Marone

Trigger warning for domestic violence.

Lorenzo Marone’s The Temptation to Be Happy (excellently translated by Shaun Whiteside) is masquerading as grump lit*. The book opens with an old widower who doesn’t get along with just about anyone. Cesare Annuziato’s life turns around when he decides to start helping people out—in his own off-kilter fashion. Even though this book gets darker than most of that genre, it still ends on an uplifting note. I needed a book like this after reading The Wolf and the Watchman.

Cesare is seventy-seven years old when we meet him, living alone in his apartment in Naples. His children have moved on with their lives. His son, Dante, is gay and everyone knows, except he hasn’t officially come out to Cesare. Sveva is a clearly unhappy lawyer, mother, and wife. His neighbors include the cat hoarder, Eleonora; his old co-worker, Marino; and the newly arrived Emma and her abusive husband. As The Temptation to Be Happy rolls on, we learn more about each and watch as Cesare is finally drawn into their problems as he comes out of his asocial shell—more out of irritation than altruism, because he can’t stand to see people keep screwing up their lives anymore.

This book is very much about happiness, but in ways that belie Tolstoy’s truism about happy and unhappy families. For a long time, Cesare chased happiness. He believes that a new job or a new lover would do the trick. It never did, so he fell back into his old job as an accountant and his family life. Nothing, he finally learned, could really make him happy so much as the little pleasures of life. The pages in which Cesare lists the things he likes at the end of the book are incredibly moving after the turmoil and sadness of the book up to that point. Nothing makes everyone happy. Everyone has their own individual joys in life; we just have to find them.

In addition to its lessons about the individual, occasionally selfish nature of the pursuit of happiness, The Temptation to Be Happy also has a lot to say about not wasting time on white lies, not speaking up for yourself, not tolerating rudeness, and accepting that we can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. This was a wise book, wrapped up in stories that feel emotionally honest to stop the whole thing from being mawkish or facile. I enjoyed it so much I just devoured the thing.


* Think of A Man Called Ove, by Frederik Backman, and books like the ones on this list from Get Literary.

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