Searching for Connection, Joy, and an Absent Father: A Review of Angie Kim’s ‘Happiness Falls’

by Samantha Neugebauer

This article was originally published in DCTRENDING, here.

Angie Kim’s second novel, Happiness Falls, is a mystery novel, and a compassionate story of a family in crisis. Mia’s father, Adam Parson, has disappeared. The last person to see Adam is his fourteen-year-old son Eugene, who has both autism and Angelman syndrome, a genetic disorder in which he smiles constantly and doesn’t speak. Consequently, the rest of the family  can’t know exactly what happened in this last encounter.  Mia, the novel’s twenty-year-old narrator, takes the lead in the investigation. Mia is extremely loquacious, at least in her head. She spends much of the novel relentlessly turning over every interaction in her mind, plowing for hidden clues and potential meanings.

While this novel is a pandemic book taking place while college student Mia is quarantined at home due to Covid lockdowns, Kim doesn’t make the pandemic a crucial component of her story. In fact, even the whodunit at the novel’s center is not necessarily the most important part of the book. Kim is most concerned with showing how this family – Mia, Eugene, Mia’s twin brother John, and mom, Hannah, a linguist, come together to learn what happened with Adam. In the midst of their quest, Mia  learns that her father, Eugene’s primary caregiver, had been secretly studying and testing theories of happiness in hopes of better understanding his own life, and his son’s life. Thus, alongside the mission to find her father, Mia also becomes enmeshed in his research, as do we, the readers.

Happiness Falls was written in Kim’s house in Northern Virginia, and at the D.C. independent bookstore Politics and Prose, Kim explained that she preferred to write in a closet than any of the empty bedrooms in her house – her three sons are off at school. In the windowless closet, she set up a large screen on which she looped videos of beaches and sunshine.

At a recent book event in September 2023, Kim spoke with historical novelist Louis Bayard at Politics and Prose. Kim stated, “I wanted the mystery at the core of the novel to really be a trojan horse – to get the reader to turn the pages.” Kim certainly succeeded in that regard; while the book’s opening might suggest a traditional mystery, this novel is much more interested in the philosophy of happiness and the way society equates intelligence and communication than Adam’s missing person case. 

Mia’s musings are so protracted that she occasionally resorts to footnotes to explain herself further. Sometimes, these footnotes take on the form of quiz-like questions to the readers: “A quick pause for a thought challenge: What’s your best guess as to why my mom believes this idea? Is it because a) she’s Asian and this we-are-all-connected thing sounds Asian in a Kung-Gu-Panda-ancient-Chinese-secret kind of way? Or b) you remembered her linguistics PhD…?” Other times, the footnotes serve as a kind of informative monologue, where Mia expands on her opinions: “It’s a common mistake, saying verbal to refer to oral speech. It’s a pet peeve of mine when people say, ‘verbal, not written,’ because written is verbal…” Overall, Mia’s verbosity can be its own kind of communication barrier. 

With such a density of shared thoughts and ideas, the reader must shift through Mia’s mind constantly, searching for what is most important and relevant. While this technique creates a hyper-realistic experience of being in a particular brain, it can also feel less artful than a more curated kind of narration style. Despite the exquisite amount of information Mia knows about a variety of subjects and the complexity of her feelings, she can come off as an East Coast version of a Valley Girl: anodyne, yet somewhat immature and spoiled. It’s possible that Mia suffers from a particular, low-viral strand of what Katy Waldman identified as the ‘self-reflexivity trap’ in which self-scrutiny and self-recrimination reign over maturity and growth. Unlike other contemporary protagonists in this trap, Mia does take action – this is a book with plot – however, Mia’s doesn’t grow as a communicator.   

The power of speech to effectively communicate and build relationships with others – especially as it relates to people with special needs–is a major theme of this book and a longtime preoccupation for Kim. Her 2019 debut novel, Miracle Creek, which won an Edgar Award and was translated into twenty languages, also featured a main character with autism. Moreover, Kim herself has also experienced and talked publicly about the problems and shame caused by an inability to communicate with people around her. 

As a preteen, Kim emigrated with her family from Seoul, South Korea to the suburbs of Baltimore. Later, she would attend Interlochen Arts Academy, Stanford University, and Harvard Law School, where she was an editor of the Harvard Law Review. She now lives in Northern Virginia. But coming to America was a rough transition at first, as Kim explains in the novel’s Author’s Note. “I was a different person in English than in Korean. Back in Korea, I had been a gregarious girl at the top of my class, constantly talking…in the U.S., I couldn’t understand or say anything beyond the handful of ‘essential English phrases’ … When you can’t speak, others assume you can’t understand and talk about you in front of you.” 

In her conversation at Politics and Prose, Kim spoke with historical novelist Louis Bayard at D.C. independent bookstore Politics and Prose. During their chat, Kim admitted that even though it has been more than forty years, she can still feel the sense of shame she first felt when she moved to America and struggled to communicate her feelings and needs. Kim also wrote a moving essay about the experience for Glamour. It’s safe to say that Kim’s experience, though not the same as Eugene’s, was one influence while writing Happiness Falls. In the novel, Mia and her family must learn to work together and reexamine their beliefs about Eugene’s abilities in order to solve the mystery of Adam’s disappearance. 

The characters who populate Happiness Falls have been with Kim for a long time – about thirteen years. She first created them for a magical realism short story set in Seoul, but over the years, she kept returning to them, or they kept returning to her! While some of the particulars of her characters’ family dynamic have changed over the years, many things have stayed the same, including that Mia has a twin brother and that the family is a biracial Korean-American family. 

Happiness Falls is a novel that will have you questioning yourself about how much you equate effective communication with intelligence and whether that is right. This a book of multiple mysteries. Full of tension, Happiness Falls is a novel for people who like reading about complicated families and personalities. The mystery will keep you guessing, and at the same time, you’ll learn how hyper-analytical Mia, who tells us she doesn’t “believe in optimism” at the beginning of the novel, becomes someone who might just find a reason to be optimistic after all. 

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