IT HAS become something of a convention in one category of popular fiction that, if you want to set a story in the past, you have to frame it with one in the present. It's as if history could only take on meaning for readers through the hook of buried family secrets.
At her mother's funeral, at the start of The Pursuit of Happiness, Kate Malone - a rather bad-tempered, self-flagellating, New York divorcee - spies a mysterious and elegant woman who appears only to disappear as quickly. Why is she here? Why has she paused over the long-dead Jack Malone's grave? Roll on too many framing pages that mire us in Kate's disappointments in love, her relations with her austere and irritating mother, her resented father who died when she was a babe, her drunken, inadequate brother, not to mention betraying lovers.
Then the mystery woman returns, holding the answer to the riddle, and propelling us out of the frame on to the canvas. Douglas Kennedy seems to be grateful that he has reached the main body of The Pursuit of Happiness. So are we. His writing takes on wit and verve. His dialogue zips along. The near past has a texture far richer than the present.
It is Thanksgiving Eve, 1945. The war is just over and celebration is in the Manhattan air. Sarah Smythe, a trainee journalist at Life magazine, is at a party at her brother Eric's house. He is a failing dramatist, a "Red", and gay, though he hasn't come out of the closet yet for his beloved little sister.
Into this sophisticated crowd walks Jack Malone, a US army journalist whose Brooklyn-Irish credentials perversely mark him as a staunch Republican and patriot, unlike his free-wheeling Wasp hosts. Malone brings all the romance of the returned soldier and the working-class hunk. His eyes meet Sara's across the crowded room and their destinies are sealed. …