The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death

The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death by Jill Lepore

publication date: 2012
pages: 192
ISBN: 978-0-307-59299-6

The Mansion of Happiness was definitely not what I expected. I don’t know where I got this idea, but I thought the book was a collection of fictional stories meditating on the theme of life and death. I certainly did not realize Mansion of Happiness was literally Jill Lepore’s retelling of the history of life and death.

Probably because I opened the book with different expectations, I was somewhat disappointed. Lepore’s style of history-writing consists of telling funny or odd anecdotes and attempting to relate that anecdote to the current day. The anecdotes didn’t have much to do with each other beyond that they were about things that happened to people, mainly people from America. Lepore attempted to shoehorn her narratives into the theme “a history of life and death,” but her attempts were not very effective, mainly because any story is technically about life or death. Additionally, the parallels drawn by Lepore between history and the present day were sometimes weak or forced.

The book had much to redeem itself, however. Although Lepore’s anecdotes were unrelated and not what I expected, they were interesting. Particularly interesting was her discussions of board games in the preface, of breast feeding, of the early rivalry between Time and The New Yorker, and of efficiency in the domestic sphere. There also were several curious parallels between the past and today that were uncovered by Lepore. For example, Lepore discussed an article entitled “What Can We Do About Marriage?” that stated that nearly three in five marriages end in divorce. Sounds familiar; but the article was published in 1947. Although the parallels found in the book were interesting, often Lepore was unpleasantly heavy-handed during those passages.

Lepore was also bewilderingly contemptuous of her subjects and, at times, downright contrarian. For example, people who insist on breast feeding their children are fanatical, but people who use breast pumps are complacent in the system. Oh, and by the way, Lepore was not comfortable with formula. OK, so she’s anti-breast feeding, anti-pumping, and anti-formula. What then could possibly be left? Additionally, the objects of Lepore’s contempt were sometimes puzzling; she spends a paragraph making fun of books about puberty written for adolescents.

Overall, The Mansion of Happiness is perfect for The New Yorker, which is where most of the chapters were first published. It involved the weaving of disparate stories in an attempt to reveal a clever thesis. It was interesting, but annoying in a way you can’t quite identify. Maybe it’s the author’s disdain. Or the myopic worldview. Or maybe it’s just the fact that, deep-down, you know what you’re reading is mostly irrelevant.

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews of The Mansion of Happiness:

San Francisco Chronicle
Sophisticated Dorkiness
Salon

4 comments on “The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death

  1. Rachel A says:

    She must just not be in favor of live babies.

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