|Romance readers often bemoan the fact that a favorite writer moves away from the genre into that amorphous category know as “women’s fiction.” I myself have a slightly different reaction. I look forward to seeing how an author will take the sensibilities honed while writing romance and apply them to a broader canvass. One of the most important of those sensibilities is the assurance of a happy ending. Happiness Key, Emilie Richards’ new book, is clearly not a romance. But it is, when all is said and done, satisfactorily romantic.
Happiness Key is the rather grandiose name that real estate operator CJ Craimer had given to an undeveloped piece of land on Florida’s Gulf Coast. He had had great plans for the place, but these had come to naught when he was arrested for fraud, corruption, tax evasion and lord knows what else. Because he had placed the property in his wife’s name, it is all that is left of his wealth after the feds got through confiscating everything else. Now Tracy Deloche finds herself far from the high life in Beverly Hills. Her sole source of income is the rent from the four rather ramshackle bungalows that sit on the property. The fifth is her new home.
The novel is the story of the four women who live on Happiness Key and the rather surprising friendship that develops among them. They are a disparate group. Wanda Grey is in her fifties and has watched her once happy marriage disintegrate under the pressure of her husband’s job as a policeman. Alice Brooks lives with her widowed son-in-law and her granddaughter Olivia. She has had a hard time recovering from her daughter’s death. Janya Kapur has recently made a marriage of convenience and come to Florida from India. She is trying to make a life with a man she hardly knows and doesn’t love.
The four women are brought together by a mystery. The tenant in the fifth house, Herb Krause, dies suddenly. As the landlord, Tracy sets out to find Herb’s family. The other women are drawn into the quest and it soon becomes clear that the old man had secrets. The search for his past becomes a catalyst for this improbable friendship and the friendship in turn helps reshape the lives of the four women.
Happiness Key is a long and complex book. It integrates the four women’s stories, the search for the truth about Herb, and the machinations of a truly nasty villain. Richards brings each of the four women to life. Tracy is a woman who was raised in a society which placed a high value on appearance. She had traded her beauty for a life of wealth and privilege. Her world had collapsed with her ex-husband’s fall and she has to recreate herself and discover what is truly valuable. She is not especially likeable at the beginning of the story and it is a pleasure to watch her develop into a truly worthwhile person in the face of adversity.
Wanda, a brash and amusing woman, cannot break through to her husband who has walled himself off from her after he killed a young man in a raid. She is angry and hurt and has gotten herself involved in something that could ruin what is left of her marriage. Yet her brittleness and sarcasm are covers for her underlying warmth. Jayna has been betrayed by those who should have loved and supported her. She is homesick and yet she knows she cannot go home. The friendship that she forges with her neighbors helps her to make her way in a strange world. Alice seems lost and at sea, but finds herself again thanks to the care of the other women.
I began this review by noting that Richards brings the sensibilities of a romance author to this book. To me, this means that everything works out well in the end. Those who prefer their fiction filled with angst might find this unlikely, but I prefer to believe that good people – and these are good people – can find happiness.
Happiness Key gave me several hours of, well, happiness. I didn’t read it in one sitting; it is over 500 pages long. But I spent every spare minute engrossed in the story and closed the book with a smile on my face.