“It isn’t your job to fix these girls,” Mia’s doctoral thesis adviser tells her in “Sickness and Health,” the opening story in Ashley Wurzbacher’s collection Happy Like This. “It isn’t your job to love them. It’s not even your job to study them. It’s your job to study their interactions, the effects of their conditions on their social lives. The effects on society, on others.” A sociology graduate student, Mia has been tasked with living in dorms with young women as an immersive research study on factitious disorders and social lives in college. The early structure of the story engages with this, complete with textual citations and a section on Mia’s methodology. As the story goes on, however, this structure slips as Mia grows attached to the young women she’s living with. She loses the critical distance to study their interactions, look for cause and effect, examine societal conditions and resulting behaviors. Instead, she feels compassion for these young women navigating awkward first dates; she feels empathy learning of their histories of childhood abuse. Mia’s adviser reminds her of the narrow scope of the job as an observing researcher, but Mia questions her own role as she is drawn to these young women as people, as individuals with memories of the past and hopes for the future.
With this opening story, Wurzbacher sets the tone for a collection of works exploring how women and girls understand and approach happiness in their careers, in their schools, and in their relationships. There isn’t a critical distance or a distinction between the character’s thoughts and interactions with others, because parsing out these threads and narrowing the scope of observation isn’t just difficult—it’s not an accurate exploration of understanding and finding happiness.
Like Mia, the women in Wurzbacher’s stories grapple with negotiating professional demands with personal desires. Like the young women Mia lives with, the characters are searching for meaningful connections, to find joy in identification, happiness in not being alone. But throughout the collection, Wurzbacher, who was recently named a “5 Under 35” National Book Foundation honoree, is careful not to treat any of her character’s experiences as universal conditions. With the details in each of these stories—the struggle of a family to learn to live together as adults and near adults, each with heartbreaks and hopes of their own; the specificity of a performing mermaid’s experience running into an ex-girlfriend during a job—Wurzbacher builds worlds within worlds, taking a nameless suburbia or an anonymous university campus and populating each with complex, connected characters, all curious about how they fit into the world around them.
Perhaps the balance between these details and the universal questions in each of these stories is why the settings feel so expansive and the emotional journeys of these characters feel so true.
The strongest moments throughout the collection occur when characters negotiate relationships requiring different conditions for happiness. In “Ripped,” Iris struggles to understand her twin sister’s new commitment to body-building that creates a barrier between the sisters. In “The Problem with You is That,” Sam is a young teacher who, after her husband leaves her, moves back in with her parents and her teenage sister, Maddy, who herself is ready to leave home for love. In my favorite story, “Happy Like This,” this theme is even more apparent: two friends who meet in a graduate program for linguistics have to renegotiate their friendship after one of them slows down her studies after having a baby. Early in the story, the unnamed narrator regrets that she’s not sharing a more compelling story, “one in which things happen, one with a climax and a resolution.” This isn’t a story like that, she explains. “What happens in this story is that Hope and I survive.”
Of course, this survival is the story. In this piece and throughout Wurzbacher’s collection, exploring happiness opens into exploring how these women occupy and claim their place, how time and attention is valued and exchanged by these women, by other people, and by society. Like Mia’s subjects, these characters call for so much more consideration than a study of their effects in a fictional society, their interactions with other characters in context. These characters call for readers to study them as they work to figure out something we all hope to: how to be happy like this.
Happy Like This
By Ashley Wurzbacher
University of Iowa Press
October 15, 2019