The Happy Housewife by Heleen van Royen

The Happy Housewife

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Happy Housewife, by author Heleen van Royen, was one of my reading surprises of 2013. I stumbled on van Royen as an author whilst researching bestselling contemporary authors in the Netherlands, where I read that she was a radio reporter as well as writing for magazines, and is considered controversial for the explicit sexuality in her novels.
With this in mind, I picked up van Royen’s first and most well-known novel with the hope that I would get some sense of a contemporary Dutch bestseller, but not much expectation that it would be much more than a light read.
I was pleasantly wowed. The Happy Housewife, which is the firs- person account of the postpartum depression of a new mother named Lea, is in turns very funny, and surprisingly, sneakily, insightful and wise. From the first few chapters, I was impressed with the English translation by Liz Waters. The novel retained a sly, smart sense of humor, and a worldview that managed to be earthy without descending into pure cynicism. One of the most refreshing things about The Happy Housewife was that it managed to describe human physicality, from burps, to births, without losing a sense of tenderness and hope. I was very impressed with van Royen’s ability to describe what is often a tragic world, as well as portraying that world as genuinely funny and worth inhabiting. At multiple times while reading, I thought to myself, “this novel is brilliant!”
In a nutshell, the book follows Lea, an independent, beautiful, sex-obsessed, young woman, from her ambivalent pregnancy (her husband has decided that he wants a child), to the horrendous and unflinchingly detailed description of her giving birth, to her postpartum psychosis, and the counseling/delving into her past that she undertakes as a result. We follow Lea into madness, and until the end of the novel, are not sure whether she will emerge intact.
In The Happy Housewife, one gets the distinct impression that van Royen is sharing an awful lot of herself with the reader. The quotes at the beginning of each chapter are attributed to her own mother, one of the poems that Lea’s father writes in the story was written by the author’s father. These types of touches lend credence to the sense that in this novel, van Royen is perhaps laying bare some of her own feelings. The funny thing for me as a reader was that, despite that fact that Lea is unabashedly self-centered, and behaves in totally outrageous ways towards her husband, baby son, and psychiatrist, her incorrigible sense of humor and her honesty make her an incredibly sympathetic character. She’s a tremendous flirt, but she’s also tremendously lonely; she’s obsessed with sex, but she also has the vulnerability of a broken-hearted little girl.
In the end, I was truly impressed with Heleen van Royen’s debut novel. It was a fast read, that is also subtly, wonderfully, wise. I appreciated it in my mid-thirties more than I would have if I had read it when I was 20.
As a final note, The Happy Housewife was made into a film. I think it would be interesting to see how the author’s voice, which makes the novel so delightful, is translated to this medium. In the end, I highly recommend The Happy Housewife, and hope that it will be read by more people around the world.

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