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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Promise of Happiness

Justin Cartwright

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Promise of Happiness

Title: The Promise of Happiness
Author: Justin Cartwright
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004
Length: 308 pages
Availability: The Promise of Happiness - US
The Promise of Happiness - UK
The Promise of Happiness - Canada
Das Glücksversprechen - Deutschland
  • Won 2005 Hawthornden Prize
  • Won 2005 Sunday Times (South Africa) Fiction Award

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Our Assessment:

A- : very fine family novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 27/12/2005 Marjorie Kehe
The Guardian B- 28/8/2004 Jem Poster
The Guardian . 12/2/2005 Alfred Hickling
The NY Times A- 7/4/2006 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. A 8/1/2006 Tony Eprile
The Observer . 22/8/2004 Kate Kellaway
The Observer A 20/2/2005 Simon Beckett
The Spectator A- 14/8/2004 Olivia Glazebrook
Sunday Telegraph . 15/8/2004 Jane Shilling
TLS . 20/8/2004 Alan Brownjohn

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but most very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "(D)ry, witty, but achy (.....) There is an air of desperation that hangs over the novel, but Cartwright is always slyly sympathetic to his characters and it's almost impossible not to become engrossed by the Judds and to root for them to achieve some sort of redemption." - Marjorie Kehe, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Cartwright studiously avoids glib optimism, but it's clear from a relatively early stage that the novel's title isn't ironically intended. (...) Cartwright is a writer of considerable distinction and some of his characteristic strengths are traceable here -- most notably an eye for the minutiae of human behaviour and an ear finely attuned to the quirks and absurdities of contemporary speech. But judged by the high standards he has set himself, this is a rather disappointing novel." - Jem Poster, The Guardian

  • "Cartwright generally achieves the fine balance of seeming both accessible and profound, mixing plot strands about Manhattan art theft, internet start-ups and Cornish cooking disasters with remarkable fluency." - Alfred Hickling, The Guardian

  • "(A) beautifully observed, emotionally detailed novel about one family's decline and regeneration (.....) (A)n elegant if flawed novel that threads the comic and the tragic together into story that, at its best, is as affecting as it is gripping." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "I am hopeful that his bitingly funny and fiercely observed new novel, which won Britain's Hawthornden Prize and the South African Sunday Times' Literary Award, will open up a new readership on this side of the Atlantic. The Promise of Happiness is a sharp-eyed portrait of a contemporary English family whose members are each unhappy in his or her own way. (...) With a few minor lapses (...), Cartwright's novel is wonderfully well written. The savage irony and probing moral questioning nicely balance each other out, and as an exploration of contemporary Englishness -- "proud, ironic and ridiculous all at once" -- it is unsurpassed." - Tony Eprile, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Perhaps it takes a South African novelist to describe an English middle-class family in such compendiously unironic detail. Cartwright never flinches; we often do. (...) This is a depressed book, its world view rancid and not easily redeemed." - Kate Kellaway, The Observer

  • "This is a riveting, pitch-perfect exploration of the fine line that exists between tragedy and the English middle-class tradition of muddling along." - Simon Beckett, The Observer

  • "The novel is busy with themes of guilt, redemption, morality and responsibility, but the characterisation is Cartwright’s great achievement. The five narrative voices are convincing and accomplished, with Charles the most successful character. (...) There are irritations, but they are minor. (...) But these are quibbles. The Promise of Happiness is a touching, beautifully observed novel written with precision and sympathy." - Olivia Glazebrook, The Spectator

  • "Justin Cartwright's latest novel, The Promise of Happiness, is a lot better than good enough. The elegant assurance of its opening pages induces in the reader an almost incredulous admiration -- as for some astonishing feat of physical strength and grace -- that lasts right to the final sentence. (...) Cartwright beautifully and inexorably constructs a tragedy of noble reticence and oddness, in which even hope (for hope remains, at the bottom of the box, when all the sorrow and wickedness has emerged) has a changeling aspect." - Jane Shilling, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Not the least of the achievements of The Promise of Happiness is in bringing into focus one sector of a fluid, bewildering and shallow society in which the nature of the shallowness is constantly shifting and adapting. (...) But the ending fails to bring together all the threads of a readable and adroitly observant narrative with quite the gravity and conviction the author intends." - Alan Brownjohn, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Promise of Happiness tells the story of the Judd family, focussing on a few weeks that make up a critical transitional juncture in their lives. The focal point is thirty-two year old daughter Juliet (annoyingly known as: "Ju-Ju"), set to be released after a two-year prison stint from an upstate New York correctional facility. Younger brother Charlie comes to pick her up -- but is also on the verge of great change: set to cash in on his Internet business, and preparing to marry now that he's knocked up his glamorous girlfriend. The baby of the family, twenty-three year old Sophie -- with pierced nose and the remnants of a drug problem --, is also close to returning to the fold and getting her life on track.
       The parents, Charles and Daphne, live in unsettled retirement in Cornwall. Ju-Ju is the great passion of Charles' life, and he hasn't been quite right since her legal problems began. Matters aren't helped by the fact that he was eased out of his job in a takeover and lost the lawsuit claiming wrongful termination. Daphne, meanwhile, has unsuccessfully embraced cooking as an outlet, with inevitably disastrous results.
       The talented and smart Ju-Ju showed great promise, "never a stumble from St.Paul's to Oxford to the Courtauld" (while younger sister Sophie managed to get herself expelled from the first rung). She becomes: "one of the world's leading experts on Tiffany windows", and it's her expertise that proves her downfall, as she tried to help out her third-rate New York gallery-owning boyfriend in a crooked deal and was left as the fall girl, judge and jury making an example out of her.
       Cartwright presents the story from the perspective of these five characters, shifting from one to another in slowly building it up and filling in the pieces -- Ju-Ju's crime and downfall are only revealed piece by piece, for example. Ju-Ju's jail-stay is also a focal point for the other family members, the stunning fall of the family star affecting each differently (including the dog, who committed suicide). For the most part, it's a subdued narrative, Cartwright focussing on the day-to-day and the small details of how they live now -- and managing, in this way, to build up a striking and affecting family portrait.
       Charles has taken to relieving himself on John Betjeman's grave (and elsewhere in the open) and is the most out of sorts, but each fumbles for stability in their own way. Ju-Ju, for example, leads Charlie on a tour of Tiffany windows as they make their way back to New York city. Both girls also find more appropriate men to lean on (both having made poor choices along the way), and while Charlie isn't entirely sure of his feelings towards the expectant mother of his child, he at least has a tidy amount of cash to fall back on.
       There's a good deal of local colour, of setting shaping the narrative: idyllic but distant Cornwall, London, New York (state and city). Much is refracted through the Tiffany windows -- something Cartwright does quite convincingly and fairly unobtrusively. The five life-stories, connected but also each very much their own, are very nicely handled -- and also quite gripping: Cartwright keeps the reader interested in these characters and what they do.
       There are a few discordant notes, notably Cartwright's lack of feel for bits of America. Though he insists on setting much of his fiction -- including a sizable portion of this novel -- in the US, his foreignness always comes irritatingly through. New Yorkers can only laugh at a description such as:

     After a year in New York she knew her way around Manhattan and Long Island including Brooklyn and further afield up into the Bronx and Queens.
       Cartwright also has what is meant to pass as a reporter for The New York Times say to Ju-Ju:
"We want your side of the story, exclusively, and of course we will pay."
       Unfortuantely, Cartwright is confusing Fleet Street with the US, where such tabloid-practises (at least at the like of such papers as the Times) won't fly.
       And Cartwright also has a tin ear when it comes to the popular use of the word "like", which he tries to spice up the kids' speech with -- occasionally (but not consistently). (Though the Friends-attribution isn't too bad a touch there.)
       Finally, the book also bears a few too many similarities to Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, including the disoriented father, the son with the wild (albeit more successful, here) get-rich-quick scheme, and the whole meeting of generations. It's not a real flaw, but the echo of Franzen's book does detract a bit from the great pleasures this book otherwise offers.
       For The Promise of Happiness is a very fine book, and close to being an exceptional book. Perhaps a bit too neatly wrapped up (especially the truth about Ju-Ju's criminal act), and with a few too many too neat plot twists (or bits, rather -- there are few real twists), it nevertheless is a truly wonderful meditation on morality and family.
       A very good read, certainly recommended.

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The Promise of Happiness: Reviews: Justin Cartwright: Other books by Justin Cartwright under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Justin Cartwright was born in South Africa and educated in the United States and England. He has written several novels. In Every Face I Meet was shortlisted for the 1995 Booker Award, and Leading the Cheers won the 1998 Whitbread Award.

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© 2006 the complete review

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