How do you live every day as though it were your last? That's the question at the heart of Something Like Happy, the new novel from Eva Woods that will launch Harlequin's Graydon House Books imprint, a new line of select women's and book club fiction.
A celebration of female friendship, Something Like Happy champions themes of hope and happiness even as its characters face serious challenges ranging from divorce to terminal illness. Woods—who has also published several mysteries and thrillers under the name Claire McGowan, and who makes her U.S. debut with this book—says that her goal for the novel was "creating a book that's not totally tragic, that offers hope and even humor, while not trivializing any of these issues."
This balance between tragedy and hope is not easy to achieve, but Woods pulls it off gracefully in her tale of two unlikely friends who meet in a hospital. Both 30-something women are dealing with problems many of their peers haven't had to face. Annie is morbidly depressed after her marriage collapsed following a personal tragedy. Polly is relentlessly upbeat, despite the fact that she is dying of cancer.
Polly challenges Annie, a complete stranger, to the #100happydays challenge, an internet meme that encourages participants to commit to finding happiness every day no matter what. "I wanted to write about someone who's very cynical and really at rock bottom coming across the ‘happy days' meme, which might seem a bit trivial under the circumstances," Woods explains. "I wanted to look at whether small things can still make a difference in the face of enormous sadness."
Woods decided to set the book over the course of 100 days—a term reflecting both the duration of the happiness challenge and the three-month prognosis that a terminally ill person might receive. "I had to figure out how to write a 100-chapter book that wasn't incredibly long," she says. "The solution was to have some chapters that are very short, mixed with longer ones."
Woods has never done the #100happydays challenge herself, though she does have a "life/bucket list"—it includes laser tag, cooking lessons, and performing stand-up comedy—that she turns to when life gets tough. "It gives me focus and helps me feel I am doing something with my life," Woods says. "I do think happiness is a state of mind and not always dependent on external things, but at the same time we have to make space for sadness in our lives and not suppress it."
In the book, Polly needs Annie's sadness to accept that she is going to die. And conversely, Annie needs Polly's optimism to find the will to live again. "This is a book about happiness that also fully encompasses all the terrible things that can happen in life," Woods explains. "When you're feeling truly at your lowest ebb, being told to cheer up or think positively can actually just make you feel sadder and more alone. It's also a reminder to myself, because naturally I'm more of an Annie in that I can be quite pessimistic! I think it's partly an Irish thing."
Something Like Happy grew, in part, out of Woods's personal experience. Both of the main characters have struggled through divorce, something that Woods and many of her friends have had to deal with in recent years—"a rock-bottom time," Woods calls it. This experience helped her relate to Annie's feelings of unfairness and being stuck. Woods is also a cancer survivor, though she has thankfully recovered completely. "I've tried to use these experiences of dark times to write about the issues both Annie and Polly face in the book," Woods says. "I hope that the book is a realistic look at loss and suffering, and also an acknowledgement that it's still possible to find hope, laughter, and love in the worst of circumstances.