The Promise of Happiness

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9780747570349: The Promise of Happiness

A powerful elegy to the intimacies and idiocies of family, The Promise of Happiness tells the story of an apparently ordinary family on the cusp of an extraordinary moment: the return of the family’s prodigal daughter, Juliet. Her release from an upstate New York prison throws the Judds, formerly of London but now scattered, back together.

For her father, Juliet's conviction for a theft she may not have committed had proven the disintegration of a dying society. For her mother, it is a source not only of resentment, but bafflement. And for all of the Judds, it is a moment of both intense joy and confusion.

As Justin Cartwright’s novel opens, Juliet’s parents await her release and return to England. Charlie, their capable and successful son, has been charged with collecting her and softening her reentry into the world, his own life unsettled meanwhile by his glamorous girlfriend's pregnancy and his ambivalence towards it. Sophie, the youngest and most rebellious sibling, is in the midst of getting her chaotic life (mostly) under control. And Juliet herself is wounded, the perfect daughter made scapegoat for a victimless crime.

With searching perception and gentle humor, Justin Cartwright gradually reveals the inner struggles of the five disparate Judds as they grapple with their conflicting feelings for each other and the moral dilemmas that beset them, bringing them finally together in what is ultimately a celebration of the layers and universal oddness of the love of a family.

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About the Author:

Justin Cartwright has won the Whitbread Prize, for which he has been shortlisted five times; he has also been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He has won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the South African M-Net Prize, and the CNA Prize. This is his eighth novel and the third he has published in the U.S. He lives in London.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Charles Judd has walked on the beach almost every day for the last four years. When it is cold---it’s early spring, but freezing---he needs to pee more often than is natural. Away from the house, where Daphne is heroically trying to cook something fishy from Rick Stein’s cookbook, he often pees in the open. There’s nobody around, and it reassures him that when he’s out of the house he can pee freely. There’s none of that gush of youth, of course, and he has to be careful of the wind direction, but still he feels calmed. When he was a young man, peeing imperiously into the urinals at Fox and Jewell, he used to direct a strong stream at the cigarette butts or the blue cakes of deodorant that lay on little rubber mats. This deodorant had an unnatural glitter, and released an unnatural smell of pine. Why do deodorants smell worse than the odours they are disguising? Minicab drivers in London always make their cars stink of resin, issuing from little Christmas-tree things swinging from the rear-view mirror. When he used to send the company car to be washed, he told the fleet manager, Arnie Prince, to ask them not to wipe it down or spray it with Fruits of the Forest or Bavarian Conifer or whatever it was. But it always came back stinking: What canyer do, Mr Judd, they’re Nigerians. I’ll try sending a runner wif a cleft stick next time. Arnie Prince was a card.

At this time of year at the beach the scents are deeply marine. The air itself is loaded with fishiness and iodine and dislocated mussels. He sees a fishing boat coming in over Doom Bar, trailed by freeloading seagulls. The sight still stirs him: that the basics of fishing haven’t changed; that the fish lie in the boxes lustrous and dying; that the fishermen throw nets over the side. But he knows that the sight of the dumpy little boats coming up the Camel Estuary doesn’t stir him quite as deeply as it used to when they first came down here. He tries to imagine the last breath he will take and the last view he will take in. (Although you don’t ‘take in’ views in the way he had once imagined: science has shown that the brain assembles the images according to its own plan and that you have no control.)

No, his last view is not going to be of The Maid of Padstow or The Cornish Princess butting up the estuary. He is trying to avoid these thoughts, which suggest the death of hope. He remembers with a pang the last uninhibited fuck he had with a young woman---she was a trainee at Fox and Jewel---and for a few weeks they had fucked blithely in the office after hours. He was so happy, and so was she.

‘You love this, don’t you?’ he said.

‘Yes, with you.’

‘Come on, you love it anyway.’

‘It’s true, I love fucking,’ she said, ‘but I’ve got a steady boyfriend, you know.’

He knew. That was twenty-three years ago. He walks up the path through the dunes across the tenth hole of the golf course, towards the church, which had once been buried in sand. A squall is coming in off the estuary and he shelters under the lychgate. The church still has a half-excavated look, as though they had dug it out of the advancing sand dunes only sufficiently to let the congregation in the door and some light in the windows. He goes to church occasionally, because Daphne is on the flower roster and helps with fund-raising. He once took charge of a donkey at the church fˆte. The donkey took off at a fast, determined scuttle and he had run along beside it holding on to a screaming child. When the donkey tried to duck under a barrier he had pulled the child off just in time. Daphne was horrified: God, you’re useless. You’re embarrassing. All you were asked to do was lead a donkey and you turn it into a Wild West drama. It was true that he had tried to liven things up by making the donkey trot, but the bony, dusty, fundamentalist, biblical creature took umbrage. (People don’t use phrases like ‘take umbrage’ any more.) The child’s parents had taken umbrage too: You fucking near killed her, you wanker, said a short, pot-bellied man in a West Country accent. No good protesting, because it was true that anything could have happened if he hadn’t just managed to snatch the child off the donkey’s back before it ducked under the barrier. Donkeys are intractable, highly unsuitable for children. Jesus rode a donkey. Appropriate transport for a humble man. And maybe Jesus didn’t try to make it trot. Last spring they were going to Jerusalem on a Holy Land tour with Cox and Kings, but the situation in Israel had deteriorated. They got the deposit back. Perhaps they would go when things calmed down.

As he stands under the lychgate he sees the little boat battling its way towards Brae Hill, following the channel, which at low tide is nothing more than the river bed, a dark thread in the water, a bit like the thread they take out of the lobsters from the fish market. In the beginning they used to congratulate themselves: Look, we’re eating lobster once or twice a week. Some foods seem to confer status on the consumers, the way salmon did before it was farmed. Now salmon is cheap, slimy, and strangely mutant. And now they only have lobster when visitors come.

The rain is moving on; it goes in curtains, drawn along the estuary. There is a connection between all this water---the estuary, the scudding rain, the boat sending up a small frothy bow-wave---and his bladder. There’s no one about. As he pees he reads the gravestone:

John Betjeman
1906--1984

He doesn’t like the fancy-curlicued, arty script of the headstone. It seems to him to contain volumes of smugness; of taste; of self-congratulation. He walks across the thirteenth fairway, minutely faceted by the rain. You have to hit a pretty good shot to get up in two. Although he was flattered to be given membership so quickly---fast track---he has been staying away from the clubhouse itself since Ju-Ju was arrested.

Their house, Curlew’s End---’Which end?’ said Clem---stands between the golf course and a lane that leads down to the bay. It is double-storeyed, white-pebble-dashed and slate-roofed, built in 1928 for holiday-makers. The garden is half rabbit pasture, which he mows sitting on a Hayter 13;sh40 tractor mower. He never told Daphne that it cost nearly two thousand pounds not including the optional disk which prevents crankshaft buckling. He has become quite adept at zipping around the meadow, the two-stroke Stratton engine hammering away, until he stops to empty the rear grass collector. Over by the hydrangeas---the only flowers that truly love life by the sea---he has a compost heap. It is protected by a dry-stone wall and some yew trees, which lean away from the wind. They don’t bend at all and yet they appear to be fastidious,trying to distance themselves from something unpleasant. In this way they are very English, he thinks.

But then so am I, and increasingly ridiculous.

The compost is used in the more sheltered part of the garden behind the house, where they have a proper lawn and some flowers, presided over---patronised even---by more hydrangeas. Here he tries to enrich the sandy, thyme-bound soil. As he mows in summer he inhales the scents of grass and thyme voluptuously. The Hayter has six settings and cuts this lawn---the proper lawn---very close. But he has lost his early enthusiasm for jumping on to the driving seat and he has allowed the first rule of lawn-mowing, little but often, to lapse. The rabbits help by nibbling assiduously. At first he had tried to control them, but they live in a bramble jungle between Curlew’s End and the golf course, so thick and impenetrable that he began to see them as the Vietcong of this little set-up. He concentrates now on keeping them away from the flowers and the shrubs, using netting that makes the garden look like a small concentration camp. The mower is in the garage for the winter.

I must get another dog. The last one---a dachshund---fell over a cliff in full cry.

Now he can see the light in the kitchen and the outline of Daphne moving about. He pauses to watch her and in that instant he sees not only her but himself yoked in ghostly outline to her.

By what paths have we arrived here, beside the sea?

As she pauses to catch Rick Stein’s drift, her head bowed for a moment, her self---her thickening body, which is beginning, like the yew trees, to take on a defensive posture---is stalled for a moment. He can’t see her face---she is silhouetted---but he knows that she will be frowning fiercely at the page. She hates cooking, but she resolved to master it when they moved here. She felt that she should make a pact with seafood---crabs, lobsters, sea bass, mussels et cetera. It would indicate her commitment to the new life on the seashore, to an active retirement. He has never used the word ‘retirement’. To her this cooking could be evidence of a new closeness between them. Maybe she thinks they are living off the land in some way, he a hunter-gatherer, she tending the flame. To him, retirement sounds like the first word of his epitaph: retired, withdrawn from life, in preparation for the long sleep to come, the retreat back into the inorganic world, under a few feet of thyme-infused turf, like Betjeman. Like Betj.

As he looks at Daphne, now chopping something, he sees for a moment Ju-Ju. It is unfair on Daphne that Ju-Ju is taller and more graceful, but still there’s something in the quick positive movement of Daphne’s head that reminds him painfully of Ju-Ju. Once Daphne said to him, ‘She’s the love of your life.’ And he said, ‘It’s just fathers and daughters,’ dismissively. But it was true that he loved Ju-Ju, and it was a physical passion. Sometimes when he was lonely he longed to sleep next to her as he had done when she was a child, although he had ...

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