Edith Reardon, looking back at her childhood through the lens of years, says she once thought that everyone in her family had to be good in order for any one of them to be good. She knows better now.
"If you get mixed up in something just happening, you can get submerged or you can get raised up. With or without your being good. Sometimes your skill can help, but sometimes what's happening is just too big for your little dog-paddle efforts."
It's 1979 in Charlottesville, Virginia. A rip-tide is about to surge through Edith's family. Mike and Joss Reardon, parents of Edith and her sister Nora, are at the center of a volatile group of intelligent and talented friends and family members. Mike is a Jesuit-educated lawyer in his forties, a former congressional staffer, whose knowledge of history, religion, politics, and art is formidable, but to his family, often stultifying. Joss, an experimental film maker, is a punster par excellence and a dedicated mother with the temper of a virago.
The narration of The Half-life of Happiness by the author of the excellent Spartina, winner of the 1989 National Book Award, alternates between the point of view of Mike and that of daughter Edith. From both we hear of Mike's realization that his wife has fallen in love with a woman -- the fiancee of one of the family's group of friends. Mike, furious about Joss's affair, decides to funnel his rage into a run for Congress.
The pacing of The Half-life of Happiness is slow up to the point of Mike's realization and decision, but the contrasts between the public image of Mike's family and the private truth, as well as between Mike's viewpoint (at the time) versus Edith's (looking back), are among the triumphs of this book. The reader is both inside and outside the story simultaneously.
Mike himself -- with his particular mesh of loyalties and flirtations, great ideas and flaws -- is another of the strengths of this book, as is Edith's unsparing but loving assessment of her parents, their friends, and their times. Notable also is author Casey's sense of comic timing, best seen in Mike's hapless encounters with the daughter of his political opponent. The writing throughout is sharp, witty, fine.
It's Edith who makes sense of it all, understanding as she does, ". . . that the last scene of certain happiness becomes the first scene of uncertainty." And brief is the interval between "the alarms and sadnesses of childhood" and "the first squeeze of perspective toward your vanishing point."