Title: The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death
Author: Jill Lepore
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Review: The questions that make up the outline of Jill Lepore’s The Mansion of Happiness are really what we might consider the Big Three Questions About Being Humans: How does life begin? What does it mean? What happens when we die? To explore these big questions and how our answers to them have changed over time, Lepore — a professor of American history at Harvard University and staff writer at the New Yorker — does what most great nonfiction writers do: narrows down the big picture through a series of very specific topics.
In this case, Lepore explores ideas of life and death and their impact on our history and our politics through ordinary (and sometimes strange) objects like Milton Bradley’s board games, sex education books for children, breast pumps and breast feeding, and the cryonics (freezing the dead) movement. Through these objects, Lepore tries to show how advances in thinking (primarily scientific) have changed very fundamentals ways about how we see the world.
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I picked up The Mansion of Happiness, but what I got wasn’t quite it. On the one hand, I loved the quirkiness of the topics Lepore chose to write about and I appreciated the clarity and depth that she wrote with. But the book also veered off in directions I didn’t expect (the chapter on breast pumps really threw me for a loop), and as I read I felt myself wishing for the book I thought I was going to read rather than the book I was actually reading; but to be honest, I’m not quite sure what that other book would have been.
In her acknowledgements — “Last Words” — Lepore notes that many of the chapters began as essays in the New Yorker, a fact that I suspected was true as I read and was glad to have confirmed. There’s a very New Yorker-y style to the entire book — intelligent, quirky, and just a little bit dry. While this is sometimes really great, particularly if you like the style of the New Yorker, it also makes the book feel a little disjointed; it can be hard to see how the topics relate to one another outside of Lepore’s decision to put them together in a single book.
At the same time, it’s hard to fault a book for it being different than what I was expecting. Lepore executes, nearly perfectly, what she was actually trying to do — each chapter, alone, was fascinating. But they felt more like chapters from several different books rather than a single cohesive unit. Perhaps if I’d read the jacket copy more carefully, I’d have had a better idea of what to expect and I’d have reacted differently. In this case, The Mansion of Happiness was well written and full of great details, it just wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I picked it up.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!