Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews This Particular Happiness by Jackie Shannon Hollis. (Forest Avenue Press)
When I first picked up This Particular Happiness by Jackie Shannon Hollis, all I knew was it was a memoir about a child-free life. I approached the book thinking it was going to be an unapologetic viewpoint, actively working against the perception that all women hit a moment in their lives when their biological clock rings and they yearn to have a baby of their own. The unapologetic point of view is one that we don’t often get, but I still had the assumption.
Then, in the first chapter, Hollis recounts a moment when she went back home, as an adult, and was holding her brand new niece. In this moment, she was the only one of five kids who hadn’t had any children of her own, and her mother made a flippant comment about how she hoped Hollis would have kids because she didn’t want her daughter to grow old, bitter, and alone. It’s one of those things that someone says without thinking about the ripples it will have caused.
This becomes the central emotion in This Particular Happiness. Hollis doesn’t only yearn for a child, but she examines why she wants a child. She wants to know whether this urge for a kid is a defense from growing into an old and bitter woman. I was wrong about this book being about someone who fully embraces a childless life, but it isn’t apologetic in its chosen life—no, it’s a dissection and study of how Hollis came to that decision.
What I appreciate about This Particular Happiness is the way Hollis handles people and their own choices to not have kids, namely her second husband. The reason she is childless is because he never wanted kids. This was the agreement they had when they got married, so when she went back on the deal, eventually begging for children, he stayed firm in his desire for a child-free life.
Reading how much Hollis wanted kids in her life and coming up against a solid “no,” it would be easy to fashion him into the villain of the story. But he’s not. There is no villain and there is no hero. This is a book about real people making their way through their lives. Hollis writes her husband as a fully rounded character through his backstory of growing up without a dad. The small details she drops into these moments create a deep understanding of his worldview and why he was resistant to the idea of being a father himself. It makes his choices seem natural, in the same way that Hollis’s yearning for a child is natural.
Life is messy and we generally don’t get these moments that linger in books. I appreciate that Hollis wrote them so masterfully in This Particular Happiness.
Hollis finds herself in a cycle where she wants a baby, comes to terms with not having one, asks her husband for one, he says “no,” and she enters into a state of mourning. In this cycle, she brings us to her own backstory. She provides us with the central theme and conflict of the book at the beginning and then gets down to the business of fleshing everything out.
Hollis writes with pinpoint precision, never forgetting to go back to her central theme. She talks about her first relationships, her move away from home for college, a terrifying and horrible rape, and how she found love. As she chips away at her own life, she’s providing flavors for the characters around her, building a world.
There is a point toward the end of This Particular Happiness when Hollis and her husband are invited to help with a couple of newborns. They’re both past the point of ever having children of their own, but they love being a support system for other people’s kids. The two of them spend a week or so at their friends’ home, helping take care of newborn twins. Toward the end of their stay, her husband watches Hollis holding one of the babies, and connecting with it on a primal level. He then apologized for keeping this from her. He regretted not taking the leap into parenthood with the woman he loves.
For some reason, this moment rubbed me the wrong way. I wanted to shake him and remind him of how sure and confident he was in his choices and that it was too late to even entertain an alternative history; that what he was saying to his wife was cruel because he was the reason she didn’t have a kid of her own and, now, far too late, he was telling her he made a mistake. I was angry for her, and I, in the moment that I read this section, wanted to think that the interaction rang false, but, in the end, like most everything in this book, it is brutally honest.
Again, this is one of those moments where someone says something flippantly without thought. It happens every day, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Life is messy and we generally don’t get these moments that linger in books. I appreciate that Hollis wrote them so masterfully in This Particular Happiness.