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Happiness Sold Separately    by Lolly Winston order for
Happiness Sold Separately
by Lolly Winston
Order:  USA  Can
Warner, 2006 (2006)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I adored Lolly Winston's Good Grief, and looked forward to her second novel with keen anticipation. In her wonderful debut, Winston portrayed - with wit, humor and empathy - a young woman's passage through the black hole of grief and depression after the sudden death of her husband. In Happiness Sold Separately, set in Northern California, she sends high-powered employee relations attorney Elinor Mackey through another black hole - that caused by infertility problems, miscarriages, and a desperate longing for children.

The hormonal rollercoaster ride that intrauterine inseminations and in-vitro fertilizations put Elinor through has caused havoc with her marriage and her relationship to her podiatrist husband Ted. Her mind wanders 'like the hand of a child who can't color between the lines, jerking across the page, making the trees blue and the sky brown.' She gets angry with well-meaning people, like the book group acquaintance who tactlessly insists that 'everything happens for a reason.' When at home, she spends most of her time in the laundry room. She still wants kids and considers adoption, while Ted is ready to drop the plan and continue with their lives as before - he hasn't understood that that life is over.

Then Elinor learns that Ted has been having an affair with his personal trainer, Gina Ellison. She signs up with Gina as a client herself (Gina doesn't know her new client is Ted's wife), leading to very funny scenes as when Gina takes charge of her diet and Elinor muses indignantly, 'You're taking my husband AND my Frosted Mini-Wheats?' Elinor does finally confront Ted, heads home to mom briefly, and then returns to work on her marriage, having rediscovered some of her old self in the process. She tells us - and many women will resonate with this - that 'Somewhere along the way to becoming a successful business woman, Elinor left her identity at the coat check.'

What's very different about this account of a love triangle and the other woman in a marriage is that no one is villified. They're all likeable people. Readers can empathize with all three and understand how they got to this point in their lives - they even, if at times unwillingly, like each other. Ted is basically decent and smart, though somewhat weak. Gina has a bad history of relationships with losers and 'DUI boyfriends'. She has a challenging ten-year-old son Toby (he keeps his room so messy that at one point Gina tackles it with a leaf blower), whom she loves but who badly needs a dad - Toby stubbornly and persistently tries to enlist Ted for the role.

Lolly Winston presents these people and their problems to us with her trademark wry, slightly wacky humor, and backs it up with quirky secondaries. There's Roger, a talented cleaner with an artistic bent, who loves his job and falls for Elinor after she hires him - she tries to set him up with Gina. There's Gina's obsessed ex Shane, who won't take no for an answer, falls off a roof, and causes all kinds of havoc. There's earnest city arborist Noah, who shares Elinor's suffering over the demise of a beloved oak tree and has a fling with her. He thinks it nice that she appreciates trees, to which she replies 'Yeah, well. Mammals were letting me down.' And there's Elinor's best friend Kat, who shares her sense of humor and is always there for her in the best way possible.

Lolly Winston has a wonderful way with words and with life. Understanding and portraying how people go through agonizingly tough times, she encourages us through her characters to lighten up, see the funny side of small things, and eventually find ways to move on. Elinor does so beautifully in Happiness Sold Separately, finally concluding that Ted 'needs to laugh. They both do.'

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