Finding her Happy Place

Book Reviews

This review originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette April 30, 2023

A reader would be wise to get the name of a therapist before they pick up the latest novel by Emily Henry, “Happy Place.”

A friend’s beach cottage on a rocky shore is protagonist Harriet’s Happy Place, and each year she looks forward to the journey. We can feel the stress melting off Harriet, a neurosurgery resident, as her plane touches down in Maine.

The book centers on Harriet and her former fiance’ Wyn, who have been a couple for most of a decade. Because they quietly broke up six months ago, Harriet is relieved that Wyn won’t be at the cottage. They had decided she would go on the annual trip this year and he would stay home.

Yet, when they both end up on the trip with close friends, they choose to not tell anyone about the breakup. They don’t want to kill the celebratory vibe when they learn their friends Parth and Sabrina will get married on this, the last trip to Harriet’s Happy Place, before Sabrina’s father sells it.

People-pleasing Harriet doesn’t want to make her friends uncomfortable. But as soon as she sees Wyn, Harriet turns into “a walking, breathing bottle of soda into which a Mentos has been plopped.”

In most relationships, romantic or not, there comes a point at which people must grow and change together or grow apart. To watch Harriet and Wyn’s journey unfold in a slow burn is fun and painful. If they admit the breakup, the group dynamic will change, and this story revolves around that farce. The twists that Harriet and Wyn take to reconstruct, refashion and decide whether to revive their relationship are a roller coaster of emotion.

The reader will turn into a soda-plopped Mentos as well. And that’s when that therapist’s number will become handy.

Fans of Ms. Henry’s canon of romantic comedies have anticipated “Happy Place” since her last hit, “Book Lovers,” in 2022. She is back for yet another turn at rom-com superstardom in her most intriguing book so far. The fake dating and second-chance romance tropes are fundamental building blocks for “Happy Place” and Ms. Henry follows through with true-to-life characters to fulfill the promise of those tropes.

An unexpected bonus is that the setting acts as its own character. The small-town scenes of the novel take the reader right to the shore: We can smell the sand and salt water as the group of friends flit about town. Ms. Henry masterfully creates a vivid world with ambiance through her descriptions of the coastal town and its inhabitants. These scenes are emotionally resonant and might remind readers of their own summer vacations.

This book feels a bit as if Ms. Henry’s “Beach Read” and “Book Lovers” collided, but with a persistent undercurrent of melancholy. The structure is reminiscent of her “People We Meet on Vacation,” as it travels back and forth in time from Happy Place (past) and Real Life (present). Harriet and Wyn are one of the most fully-formed couples Ms. Henry has written and possibly the steamiest as well.

At times Ms. Henry steps a little too close to the edge of Hallmark-movie moments of rom-com, but because she is the queen of the beach read, she stops just short every time and can make a reader giddy with unforeseen turns.

Friendships are not inferior to the main characters in this world. The characters are people you probably know, and all have just enough depth, nuance and quirk to make them authentic. The supporting cast in this novel is just as fun as the main couple, which is a joy. A reader will feel lucky, and perhaps envious, to be among such a close group of friends.

For readers who love Ms. Henry’s books this will be a slam-dunk, gold star of a book. For those that have not, proceed with caution. This is Ms. Henry in her purest form, in her own Happy Place.

Meredith Cummings is a freelance journalist and teaching assistant professor of journalism at Lehigh University.

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