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Happiness Falls by Angie Kim

“We didn’t call the police right away.” Those are the electric first words of this extraordinary novel about a biracial Korean American family in Virginia whose lives are upended when their beloved father and husband goes missing.

Mia, the irreverent, hyperanalytical twenty-year-old daughter, has an explanation for everything—which is why she isn’t initially concerned when her father and younger brother Eugene don’t return from a walk in a nearby park. They must have lost their phone. Or stopped for an errand somewhere. But by the time Mia’s brother runs through the front door bloody and alone, it becomes clear that the father in this tight-knit family is missing and the only witness is Eugene, who has the rare genetic condition Angelman syndrome and cannot speak.

What follows is both a ticking-clock investigation into the whereabouts of a father and an emotionally rich portrait of a family whose most personal secrets just may be at the heart of his disappearance. Full of shocking twists and fascinating questions of love, language, and human connection, Happiness Falls is a mystery, a family drama, and a novel of profound philosophical inquiry. With all the powerful storytelling she brought to her award-winning debut, Miracle Creek, Angie Kim turns the missing-person story into something wholly original, creating an indelible tale of a family who must go to remarkable lengths to truly understand one another.

 

More in-depth:

On a summer morning in 2020, Adam Parson vanishes while hiking in a suburban Virginia park with his 14-year-old son, Eugene. Eugene returns home agitated and alone, dried blood caked under his fingernails, but he can’t tell his family what happened: He has a dual diagnosis of autism and Angelman syndrome, a developmental disorder, and doesn’t speak.

What happened to Adam? Answering that question is the ostensible raison d’être of “Happiness Falls,” Angie Kim’s discursive second novel. (Her first, “Miracle Creek,” also put an autistic character at the center of the plot.) But the mystery turns out to be little more than a vehicle for exploring a dense thicket of ideas that seem to interest Kim more than the fate of a missing middle-aged father: the relativity of happiness; the way we make sense of events based on scant evidence; the Korean concept of jeong (“that sense of belonging to the same whole, your fates intertwined, impossible to sever no matter how much you may want to”); Noam Chomsky’s theory of psycholinguistic nativism; the rudiments of speech therapy; and, above all, the pervasive mislabeling and misunderstanding of neurodivergent people.

Narrating this tornado of a book is Parson’s 20-year-old daughter, Mia, a caustic polymath who has moved home during the Covid pandemic. Mia may be neurotypical, but she’s hardly typical. The title of her college honors thesis: “Philosophy of Music and Algorithmic Programming: Locke, Bach, and K-pop vs. Prokofiev, Sartre, and Jazz Rap.” She casually tosses off allusions to “The Twilight Zone” and the philosopher William of Ockham and likes to dwell on “micro-anomalies,” parsing the minutiae of everyday interactions for meaning. The story of Adam’s disappearance, as recounted and dissected by Mia, is as colorful and mutable as a lava lamp.

An acquaintance lets slip that Adam had recently been diagnosed with cancer. Did he die by suicide to spare his family? A voice mail on Adam’s phone from a woman makes the police and family wonder if he was having an affair. Has he run away with a paramour?

A cellphone video raises a particularly dreadful possibility: Did Eugene have something to do with Adam’s vanishing? Enigmatic texts must be parsed, passwords cracked, the contents of Adam’s puzzling journal digested and — if possible — Eugene’s bricked-up storehouse of memories accessed. As each clue surfaces, Mia devises a new theory of what happened to her father, reinterpreting everything that has come before and interrogating how she feels about it, appending dozens of rambling footnotes.

Trigger Warnings: 

  • Father loss
  • kidnapping

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