"Happiness Falls" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider
The impetus behind Angie Kim’s new novel, “Happiness Falls,” can be traced to the difficulties she had adapting to a foreign culture when she moved to the United States from Seoul, South Korea as a preteen. In her new home in America, her inability to communicate caused her shame. Learning English was a struggle, her accent made her words sound different and she felt others perceived her as not being very bright. She states this summation in her Author’s Note adding:
“Our society—not just the US, but human society in general—equates verbal skills, especially oral fluency, with intelligence.”
One of the central characters in Kim’s book also has trouble expressing himself verbally. Fourteen-year-old Eugene can’t communicate with words because he has a dual diagnosis of autism and Angelman syndrome (AS) a rare genetic disorder, the latter causing him to look happy, a grin on his face when he might not be feeling cheerful at all.
Eugene’s mother is Korean, his father Adam is American. Rounding out the family from suburban DC are 20-year-old twins, John, immersed in an internship, and Mia, home from college because of COVID. Their mother is determined to use the hiatus as a bonding experience.
Mia, who is much like her father, philosophical, highly intelligent, and secretive, at times, narrates this smart, believable, heartwrencher that grabs attention at the onset when Adam, the 50-year-old dad disappears. Well into their marriage, Adam and his wife switched roles—she became the breadwinner and Adam stayed at home. As such, Adam is Eugene’s caretaker. The two hiked together often, the exercise good for Eugene’s coordination.
Adam and Eugene leave from their house to hike in a wooded area with a waterfall, cliffs and a rushing stream. Several hours later, Eugene runs home at breakneck speed, alone. Mia is shocked when she sees him and rushes to approach him. Rather than embracing her, Eugene roughly shoves her to the ground and darts to his room, jumping up and down on the floor, an action he engages in when stressed.
The next few hours the family tries to make sense of what’s happened, but don’t contact the police immediately because of their concern that Eugene might be suspect. The boy on occasion has acted aggressively with family, and he did return home from the hike scratched, his clothing dirty.
When the police are notified, Eugene’s situation worsens. He acts out and has to be taken to the police station. Dash cam video and eye witness accounts provide answers to what happened after Adam disappeared but there is no information about what happened beforehand, providing answers as to if someone accosted the pair or if there was an accident, Adam falling off a cliff, or pushed.
“Happiness Falls” is a complicated, fascinating mystery with complex, discussable characters—from police detectives to language specialists, to family members in turmoil, torn between loyalty to a special needs child, and the need to know the truth of what happened, or choosing not to know. Both options are weighted with consequences in a compelling story with no easy answers.