Angie Kim, author of Edgar Award-winning book Miracle Creek, released Happiness Falls, yet another fast-paced novel, this time told through the perspective of a precocious 20 year old coming to grips with what happened to her father as she analyzes the incidents leading up to her father’s mysterious disappearance and the whirlwind of events that follow as the police and her family investigate to figure out the truth.
Just like in Kim’s last novel, an autistic boy is central to the story, except this time he also has Angelman syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the nervous system.
This condition prevents 14-year-old Eugene, the youngest of the Parkson kids, from speaking, causing him to laugh and smile excessively, which may be contrary to what he may actually be feeling.
Eugene is the last person to see his father alive after going on a nature walk with his stay-at-home dad, Adam, at a nearby park. It is the summer of 2020, the early times of the pandemic with everyone adjusting to and figuring out the new normal.
Hannah, the mother, is working as a linguist. Mia, the protagonist, is at home going through a break-up. Her fraternal twin brother John is out interning at Henry’s House, where Eugene gets therapy. Witnesses see Eugene running out of the woods, causing an accident on the road, and rushing home.
Surprised to see her brother running, Mia comes out to greet him but is pushed aside, causing her to sprain her ankle and tumble to the ground. Feeling sorry for herself, she continues to lay there. She eventually hears the crunch of footsteps and immediately concludes this must be her father. Though he does not query as to what she is doing (which would go against his inquisitive nature), she is content with her interpretation of the situation and falls asleep.
Fast forward to four hours later when the family starts to catch on that Adam is missing. Instead of calling the police, they decide to search for him themselves.
When the police make an unexpected visit to follow-up on leads from witnesses whose descriptions match Eugene from the accident, Mia, upon noticing traces of blood on her brother’s shirt and beneath his nails, instinctively tells him to scrub his nails in the shower — a foreshadowing of who will become the prime suspect in this missing person’s case.
As the investigation rolls on, the potential causes of Adam’s disappearance range from murder to suicide. A notebook is discovered that details experiments on his family, particularly his children, to determine what he calls the “Happiness Quotient.”
His theory about happiness basically states that it depends on how low a person’s expectations or previous experiences were, referred to as the baseline. This baseline could determine how happy they would be to receive certain news or to new experiences: the lower the baseline, the more likely the person would experience happiness. The reason behind Adam’s pursuit of this knowledge plays a key role into Mia’s analysis for the cause of his disappearance.
Though Happiness Falls is a mystery story, the main theme revolves around the assumptions people make about those who cannot speak, whether it be through a disability or the inability to speak the native language of another country. The assumption is that these people are stupid, something author Kim experienced herself when she emigrated from Korea at the age of 11.
In the author’s note she writes, “Our society — not just the U.S., but human society in general — equates verbal skills, especially oral fluency, with intelligence. Even though there was a good reason I couldn’t speak English, I felt stupid, judged, and ashamed.”
She continues: “When you can’t speak, others assume you can’t understand and talk about you in front of you. Kids openly made fun of my heavy accent, weird syntax, and ‘broken’ English — even as they were smiling at me, pretending to be friendly… It’s been more than 40 years, and thinking about it today, I still feel that burn of shame.”
Kim’s lifelong interest in happiness stems from her own conflicted experience with it as a child. Though her Korean friends told her she was lucky to be moving to America, like winning the lottery, her feelings were contrary to these expectations.
Her family had been very poor in Korea, and even though her circumstances improved greatly, she became unhappy because she barely spent time with her parents, who practically lived in the grocery store they worked at.
“The disconnect between what I was told I should feel and what I did feel when we immigrated to the U.S. — utter joy versus misery — is something I puzzled over in college as a philosophy major, researching and writing about theories of objective versus subjective happiness.”
Happiness Falls goes at a thrilling pace thanks to Mia’s bullet-train thought processes and narrative. As someone who worked in Korea for eight years and as someone who finds it hard to verbally express or defend herself, I appreciated protagonist Mia’s insights on the nuanced sexism observed in Korean society, which I would argue extends towards American society as well.
The book reads somewhat like a research or thesis paper because some pages have extensive footnotes, and some address stereotyping and racist attitudes towards Asian Americans, which I also appreciated.
Most of all, the book helped me change the way I see people termed as “nonverbal;” I am more aware of how I speak and behave and pledge to be more consciously aware of my surroundings and not overlook people I speak to. Happiness Falls has adrenaline, mystery, intrigue, and a lot of heart that emphasizes love of family through thick and thin.