So yesterday I finally got my copy of Happy Baby in the mail. I know I’m late to the party — Maud’s been raving about this book for months. But, and I think that she would agree, Maud and I tend to have fairly different tastes.* Case in point: Zoe Heller’s What Was She Thinking, one of Maud’s faves from last year, left me going, “Ehn.” So, while I knew I would get to it at some point on the strength of Maud’s recommendation, I wasn’t in a huge hurry to read what the New York Times called “surely the most intelligent and beautiful book ever written about juvenile detention centers, sadomasochism and drugs.” That description actually put me off.
But this book. This. Book. This book grabbed me by the throat and pulled me through its pages. I opened the box from Powells, took out this book, and staggered away from it only six hours later.
I just remembered this: a long time ago when my little brother was about two years old, my mother came upon him in the living room fast asleep on the floor in front of the television. She reached down to pick him up and carry him to bed. He must have been dreaming some awful, terrible thing because as soon as she took him into her arms, he shrieked and sank his new teeth into her neck. Deeply into her neck. I remember the way she tried to get him off, her hands pulling on his legs. She was half-screaming, “No, honey, no! It’s mommy! It’s just mommy!” as she tugged him away. There were tears on both their faces.
But I digress.
Almost everything to say about this book has already been said. But it has not been said often enough. Or loudly enough. Frankly, I do not understand why this book isn’t a huge bestseller. It is a beautiful and sensitive book on an extremely difficult subject. It is a deft, spare, and artful book, yes, but it seems to me that it is also, and this is more rare, a truly important book. I don’t think it is possible to read this book and come away without wanting to do something, to save somebody, to make a goddamn difference somehow. Last night after I finished this book, I wandered around my big and empty house feeling big and empty. I kept picking up the phone. I wanted to call social services and take in a foster child immediately; I wanted to call Oprah and get her to get her millions of teary middle-aged, middle-class women to read this book; and even though this book is a novel, I wanted to track down Stephen Elliott and somehow — SOMEHOW — make it better.
*Update: In an email to me, Maud said, “I do think our tastes are really, really different sometimes, but when we agree I think we really agree…” And that’s it, exactly. On this particular book, we really agree.