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A story about coping with loss

A story about coping with loss

Sometimes loss and death give little or no warning of their arrival. The doorbell rings at two in the morning, and we open the door to find a policeman waiting to say, “Sir, I’ve got some bad news.” We arrive home from a normal day at work and find our beloved spouse lying on the floor, fallen with a brain aneurysm. We go to a hospital expecting to bring home a healthy baby and instead find ourselves arranging a funeral. We go into work to a job we love and find ourselves leaving an hour later under guard and with a pink slip in our pocket. We find our beloved in the arms of another and wonder what the hell happened.

Cheery, right?

Agnes Martin-Lugand’s Happy People Read and Drink Coffee (Weinstein Books, 2016, $22.00, 242 pages) tells just such a story of catastrophe and ruin, and how we cope with the loss of love.

Diane is the Parisian owner of Happy People Read and Drink Coffee, a bookshop which she runs with her business partner and best friend, Felix. She is married to Colin, an attorney and beloved husband, and has a younger daughter, Clara, whom she and Colin adore.

In the first few pages of this novel, we learn that Colin and Clara are killed in a car crash, and that Diane goes into a yearlong depression. She quits going to work and stays in her apartment, where she broods on her loss, drinks too much wine and smokes too many cigarettes, and fends off all efforts by her parents and Felix to reengage with the world.

Finally, however, this nagging pays off. Diane chooses to leave Paris and go to Ireland, a country that Colin had once wanted to visit. She takes out a map of Ireland, closes her eyes, plops a finger to the map, and decides to move to the tiny village of Mulranny.

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Despite Felix’s protestations, Diane rents a cottage in Mulranny. Her neighbor, she quickly discovers, is an eccentric misanthrope her own age named Edward, the son of her landlords. Edward is a professional photographer who has suffered his own losses. He and Diane begin their relationship as mortal enemies, but eventually grow closer to each other, finding solace in their mutual pain.

To say more of the plot of Happy People Read and Drink Coffee would spoil the ending, which is not what most readers, including myself, might expect. (By the way, were I choosing a title for this book, I would write Happy People Read, Drink Coffee, and Smoke Cigarettes. Nearly all the characters are endlessly smoking, which I found amusing given our own anti-tobacco puritanism here). 

Yet I can, without damaging the outcome of the story, share some of the pleasures derived from Happy People Read and Drink Coffee.

First, there are the characters. Diane, Felix, and Edward all come across as people we may have known. Diane first comes to us as self-pitying and churlish, yet she grows in the story into the person she once was and beyond. Her feistiness and appreciation for life return to her, but her suffering and her growth in enduring that pain deepen these qualities. She becomes wiser in her dealings with people and more understanding of heir faults. 

Felix, her gay confidant, reminds us of that friend or family member who never gives up on us, no matter what ordeal we are enduring, no matter what we may have done wrong. Again and again, he is there for Diane, supporting her in her grief and in the new direction her life takes. His appearance in an Irish pub on New Year’s Eve is humorous and warm. 

Finally, Edward is that person whose pain has left him leery of all humanity, mistrustful, callous, even cruel. Martin-Lugand handles his slow healing with particular grace.

Martin-Lugand’s depiction of village life in Ireland is also striking. Some writers paint that life as idyllic or quaint, but here the weather is harsh, the landscape at times daunting, and the people gritty and often hard-nosed, but with a sense of humor about the human comedy at play about them. Martin-Lugand is French, but it is Ireland that feels most alive in her novel.

Finally, Martin-Lugand’s description of Diane’s grief seems true and valid. Those who have suffered a tragedy, or those who have caused a tragedy and feel remorse, will find here a kindred spirit. Diane’s reaction to the deaths of her husband and daughter in the accident may seem overblown, but only to those who have not yet suffered such a tragedy. The scenes in Ireland, where she is trying to find a new way, also strike home. She is afraid of love for fear of betraying Colin; she is afraid of happiness for fear of betraying both Colin and Clara. Those who have gone through such an experience know that we are supposed to try and reclaim happiness. They also know how guilty we may feel when we actually do find a moment of joy.

Some readers may find Happy People Read and Drink Coffee maudlin, too romantic or too simplistic. I suppose it depends on where you are on your travels. For me, Diane, Felix, and Edward all had something to say, and I found myself listening.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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