The Happiness Thief: A Novel by Nicole Bokat

What kind of monster are you?

Natalie Greene has buried the horrible car accident that cost her mother her very life. With her shattered, haunting recollection of that event, hazy at best, the one thing she feels to be true is that it was all her fault. She is the reason her mother is dead. Now in her forties, her marriage has just ended due to her husband’s infidelity, so she turns to her adored step-sister Isabel Walker, once a troubled teen and now a wildly successful, spiritual guru of sorts. Natalie joins her at the annual Happiness Conference at the Cayman Islands, despite having just lost her own father, Isabel (always a powerhouse) works through her grief, surrounded by fans and admirers who long to be self-actualized and happy. Isabel is everything Natalie isn’t, as if Natalie’s happiness and future has been trapped in the nightmare of her own loss, her guilt a heavy stone in her heart. She doesn’t begrudge her step-sister her glorious life and is proud of her accomplishments, including her solid marriage to George. She doesn’t fall apart in the face of loss, not like Natalie.

Behind the wheel with her sister beside her, glorifying in Isabel’s presence, there is a suddenly blare of headlights, causing her to hit something. Once again she is the helpless teen and Isabel takes charge, confronting the other driver. No harm done, the man assures them it was nothing, a four legged creature. She sees the other driver later, a handsome photographer named Simon, who gives her his email. A shared passion for photography, even if her job photographing food is less stimulating, is a happy coincidence. Life goes on, Natalie returns to Boston and wonders about the stranger while she tries to launch herself as a single, working mother to Hadley, her teenage daughter. Hadley pushes her mother to try, make an effort to feel better about herself. Her soon to be ex is moving on faster than either of them are prepared for, putting a fire in Natalie that leads her to seek Simon.

When she receives an eerie email that seems to imply the recent accident is far more sinister than she thought, making her doubt everything that happened on the road that night at the Happiness retreat, she begins to question everyone in her life, including Simon. Could it be he isn’t who he seems? Maybe the trauma of her past is making her insane. She feels like an inept, amateur sleuth trying to figure out who Godfrey (the emailer) is. Memories of her mother’s accident are erupting too, and it has always been Isabel she relies on to supply the facts. After all, it was her devotion to her that caused such a tangle, a rift between she and her own mother. She meets Jeremy, a journalist, and asks him for a favor-help her find out what happened recently the night of her accident but there is a second request involving the past and her family. In turn, she will let him interview her. Jeremy isn’t a fan of happiness gurus or new age healers of any sort, who better to talk to than the popular Isabel’s sister for his piece? She knows Isabel is on the up and up, her passion is helping people, including Natalie herself. She has gone above and beyond to support her when she was at her weakest.

When she informs Isabel about the email, her sister offers to get to the bottom of things. She’s always been there to pick up the pieces, to guide Natalie. She doesn’t understand why she is tormenting herself, assuring her the accident was nothing, this is just the past eroding the present again. She is leaping to impossible conclusions despite the evidence, hurting because of the past, mixing things up. Isabel is greatly concerned, worried about her well being.

As more information rises to the surface, things get more complicated, illuminating the past. There is more to the mystery of their family, so many doubts, holes in Natalie’s memory that maybe a letter could dispel. This is, in the end, a story about ‘the strong habit of love’, the things we see and how much we miss. The story is good, but there were times Natalie got on my nerves. She does act immature, but it could be the writer’s intent, to show how in a sense losing her mother, blaming herself, having relied on Isabel too much and being in such a long marriage infantilized her in some ways. When we first meet her, she doesn’t trust herself, hasn’t fully stood on her own two feet and divorce demands that of you. She suffers from trauma still and it’s hard to move past it when you don’t have the full story and your own memories play hide and seek. You can’t always look to others to save you.

The truth finds a way and it isn’t always pretty.

Publication Date: May 18, 2021

She Writes Press

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