Sunday, 10 June 2018

Emma's Review: The Forgotten Guide to Happiness by Sophie Jenkins

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

Sometimes, happiness can be found where you least expect it…

Twenty-eight-year-old Lana Green has never been good at making friends. She’s perfectly happy to be left alone with her books. Or at least, that’s what she tells herself.

Nancy Ellis Hall was once a celebrated writer. Now eighty, she lives alone in her North London house, and thinks she’s doing just fine. But dementia is loosening Nancy’s grip on the world.

When Lana and Nancy become unconventional house mates, their lives will change in ways they never expected. But can an unusual friendship rescue two women who don’t realise they need to be saved?

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Many thanks to Avon Books for my copy of The Forgotten Guide to Happiness via NetGalley to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

When I began to read Sophie Jenkins' The Forgotten Guide to Happiness, I thought the book had been printed in the wrong order as the very first page starts with chapter 40 of a book which sounded to me like it should have been at the end. I'll admit I found this slightly confusing to start with but then I presumed this would resolve itself by the conclusion of the story. I needn't have worried myself unnecessarily so early on as within a few pages all did become clear and I could see why the author began the book the way she did. This début novel from Sophie Jenkins follows Lana Green as she  begins to forge a new path in life and in doing so finds happiness in the most unexpected of places but in the most delightful of ways.

Lana is a writer and has attempted to write her second book following on from the success of her début Love Crazy. The only problem being her first novel was based on her own real life experiences and now that her personal life has taken a nose dive, she can only write about what she knows and as Kitty, Lana's agent, says people want to read of love and romance not sadness and rejection. Lana has written a full length draft of book two and is hopeful of approval and to get the go ahead for publication but Kitty has more or less tossed the manuscript to one side and told Lana to start all over again. How devastating for Lana particularly as she feels she gave the writing of the book her all. Kitty feels the story is too bleak and depressing and one which readers will not rush out to buy. Lana is told in no uncertain terms that there is a simple formula one which should be adhered to if an author wants to have a successful career and make some money. The storyline should go like this - love, it goes wrong, they get back together, happy ending and Lana should not deviate from this no matter what way her thoughts drift.

I felt Lana was brave not to give up on her dream and that she did want to continue to pursue her writing career but given her perilous financial situation and the fact she has been more or less abandoned by boyfriend Mark, also the star of her début novel, she really was faced with no other choice but to get on with things. If that meant compromising the content of what she was writing, was she willing to do so? Does she agree with the prescribed formula but finding a storyline to even begin the writing process once again would prove very challenging. At times I thought Lana was full of enthusiasm and could make a go of things and then at other points, her lack of just sitting down to write and getting a story down on paper began to frustrate me. But on refection maybe she needed to do everything she experienced and to encounter the people she did in order for the words to flow in such a way that would satisfy both herself, Kitty and her readers.

There were a lot of hidden layers to the story and by this I felt there was a lot of reading between the lines for the reader to figure out the overall picture and really understand the thoughts, feelings, actions and inner workings of the characters hearts and minds. This book in no way was your typical love story, the kind that Kitty wanted Lana to write, and I think it was better overall for it but I do feel the ending the ending was very long winded and as is mentioned with regard to finishing up books within the story itself the ending is reached but then four or five more are included. That's what I thought here but apart from this The Forgotten Guide to Happiness is a very good read with love and finding your happy place in life at its centre.

When Lana meets Jack Buchanan, as she sits pondering her next move over a drink, little does she realise this meeting will be the catalyst that will eventually inspire her. That everything that occurs from now on will see her change her outlook on life, her overall attitude and her perceptions with regard to people and situations. Maybe now is the time when she can come out from under the cloud that Mark has enshrouded her in ever since he failed to return from an assignment he was on as something better seemed to have cropped up. In my mind, Lana was far too bogged down in pining for Mark, who himself seemed to have no regard for her. If he could move on, she needed to as well and as her private life had been traumatic and what she classed as a failure now was the time to do it. Lana believes she needs to find a new hero for her book. But what is a hero? Do they have certain criteria? Or do they just walk off the page to meet you fully formed?

Jack offers his services but she seemed to initially give him short shrift but I enjoyed how he never gave up on Lana but was subtle in the way he went about this. We don't need a bolshy, in your face, perfectly formed male character in every book we read that has a focus on romance. No, sometimes it's nice to have someone who is unobtrusive yet supportive, loyal and kind. Jack never forced himself forward but I did suspect what his long term goals were and wondered would the clouds clear and allow her to see what was right in front of her eyes? Jack takes Lana to meet his stepmother Nancy Ellis Hall, herself once a famous writer and feminist whose own love story throws up so many questions. Lana very much admires Nancy but she is not herself any more, the onset of dementia means she is not the person she one was. How can Lana reach beneath the layers of confusion and endless repetitive questions to discover the real Nancy who surely remains beneath the fog of confusion?

As Lana moves in with Nancy in a kind of carer role, the book took on a lovely feeling and it became a catalyst in the writing process for Lana that she hadn't realised she needed to go through. Nancy was a brilliantly written character. Yes it was sad that a disease was taking her away from those that loved her but her eccentricities provided many laugh out loud moments and I thought everything was dealt with sensitivity and tact. Yes the friendship that develops between the women many would class as unusual but instead the way the story was written it felt natural and realistic. As things developed more both Nancy and Lana really endear themselves to the reader. Although, I can't say the decision Lana made at the halfway point did the same and I think many others will form the same opinion. Just when you think someone has finally understood what their place in life should be and that maybe happiness is right there within reach only for them to do something that has the reader screaming in frustration. I understand why the author did this at this point yet I lost some respect for Lana and I think she realised this herself once she began to see the wood for the trees.

Overall The Forgotten Guide to Happiness was a lovely read and a very promising début. It did become slightly repetitive in the mid part before the story picked up pace again and I have mentioned my issue with the ending. But pushing these issues to one side there within lies a beautiful story with a lovely message and people will enjoy the character of Lana as she navigates her way to finding happiness and to discover does a hero lie within her reach.

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