Celia is a young widow who bought a Brooklyn apartment house when her much loved husband died. She has hand picked her tenants for their quietness and her perception that they will keep to themselves, as will she. She maintains her isolation by self-medicating and engaging in anonymous sex with strangers. For five years that strategy has worked, and she has remained numb, but when her upstairs tenant sublets his apartment to the enchanting and tragic Hope who may be involved in an abusive relationship, an elderly tenant disappears, and she encounters half of the upstairs’ couple meeting his lover, her resolve begins to crumble. The theme of this gorgeously written novel is loss. Each character deals with some kind of loss, and when they are incongruently thrown together they spark in each other the process of healing. The happy ending guarantees no happy endings, just a celebration of the small moments of happiness best described in Celia’s thought, “What I had known of happiness was that it sat best in small cups; it was designed for the sprinter or the wave destroying itself on the rocks; it couldn’t be clutched at or too carefully observed; and its departure couldn’t be guessed at.”
Coincidentally, I was at the same time reading How to Wake up: a Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. This book stresses the idea that clinging and desiring result in unhappiness, and that mindfulness and acceptance of the impermanent nature of every aspect of life opens us to the moments of real joy. Bernhard has written a very accessible, dogma-free guide to Buddhist wisdom and a practical handbook for practicing the freedom to experience joy.