The getting of happiness is a well-worn theme in literature, considered by some authors too trite to treat. Not so Daniel Stern, whose ninth book, "An Urban Affair," discovers all over again that happiness, notwithstanding the Declaration of Independence, can never be a pursuit, of itself, but only and forever a byproduct of living.
Simon, Stern's protagonist, takes 335 pages of exquisite sensibility and international junketing to answer a question any older person within reach could have settled for him in half an hour. Simon doesn't ask, of course, and if he had, wouldn't have listened. For it is a curious fact that, if human adults are the most capable of all animals at passing down wisdom from generation to generation, so humans are the only young who can dare to reject it. Like Simon, they sometimes get there later on their own, and, like blonds, they often have more fun. But not without carnage along the way.
Simon is a celebrated city planner, shell-shocked out of the public arena by a political humiliation in Chicago. On the rebound from his civic love affair, he decides to settle for a private project, the salvation of Sarah, a sophisticated travel agent who provides guided tours to interesting places, one of which is herself. Unfortunately, due to circumstances, she has excised meaning from her life and reduced being to its bodily functions, a situation Simon does not hesitate to exploit, for therapeutic reasons naturally.
Although his blueprint for Project Sarah is less than concise, Simon succeeds rather unaccountably in saving her, beyond his commitment to her. He has, in fact, a wife and son to whom he's somewhat attached, and everybody is said to win in the end, an unusual development for a novel with such thoughtful intentions.
That they are not pretentions is a matter of opinion. Mine is that Stern ultimately succeeds in drawing together some doubtful and disparate elements into a meaningful and rewarding book.
It's hard, however, to ignore the evidence for the other side. To begin with, this edition should be recalled for readjustment of the past and present tenses, which slip in and out of gear like the shift on a jerry-built automobile.
At first, tangential dialogue, dubious intellectualizing, and obsessive accounts of sexual encounters that sometimes sound more gynecological than loverlike make a tempting case for leaving this Stern unturned. It does not help that this is a very modern love affair: Sarah's into being her body and doing love, happiness, and anarchy; Simon vomits a lot. (Funny about vomiting: it seems to be an American literary convention; when the English want to signify an excess of emotion, they mostly get very, very tired.)
Furthermore, these characters take themselves so seriously that it's easy for a reviewer not to. Motivations are sometimes obscure and the process of salvation is fuzzy. There is much Sarah can't tell -- her past is so full of holes that she could have kept her diary in a loose-life notebook -- yet, when the truths come out, they hardly seem worth the neurosis, at least as traumas go these days. Simon is no Mr. Mental Health himself; throughout the book he carries on a number of conversations with a dead friend, and to very little purpose, at that.
Yet I finished the book a satisfied customer. Perhaps it was Stern's comfortable way with words. Who can stay annoyed at a writer whose heroine "hides her face in its bed of hair"? He thinks subtly, too: on the self-fulfillment of needs ("pilgrims tend to encounter prophets"); on a difference between wife and mistress ("Loving Alex was like loving Mozart, America or little Matthew: it didn't matter if they were present. Loving Sarah was very precise; it required Sarah").
This is a book of dialectic, of argument and tension, of people constantly changing sides and, yes, growing. Occasionally the debate gets wearisome; public vs. private, anarchy vs. order, marriage vs. freedom, belief vs. feeling. The futile polemic drones on until, just as the reader despairs, the pages leap to life: Sarah teaching Simon to set the table; Marcus, Sarah's one-time husband, lecturing on the social order during a boccie game; ram Singh, the unlikely synthesizer of the theses and antitheses of the story, setting Michael straight at the end.
Sarah and Simon travel from New York to Paris to the south of France to Venice in search of happiness. The reader on a tighter budget may modestly anticipate his findings by staying home with a good book -- possibly this one.