Angie Kim’s “Happiness Falls” is one of the smartest, most multi-layered mysteries of the year. While moving at the speed of a thriller, it’s also an engrossing story that explores what it means to be part of a family with a special-needs child, and discusses the implications of being biracial and navigating two different cultures without ever feeling completely at home in either.
Mia is a brilliant 20-year-old studying electronic music in college, with perfect pitch and a dark sense of humor streaked with a healthy dose of cynicism. She has a twin brother named John, and a younger brother named Eugene who has a rare genetic disorder called mosaic Angelman syndrome, a condition that renders him nonverbal and gives him motor difficulties but also “an unusually happy demeanor.” A biracial Korean American family living in suburban Virginia with a stay-at-home dad and a lawyer mom, all of them are trying to get through the mayhem of the COVID-19 pandemic, their life at home centering around sharing meals and taking care of Eugene.
However, when their father goes missing under mysterious circumstances while on a nature outing with Eugene, Mia, her twin brother, and her mom find themselves involved in a mystery that seems to constantly expand. (Eugene returned from the outing with bloodstains on his clothes, and is the only one who knows what happened.) As the investigation into the whereabouts of Mia’s father unfolds, the family discovers just how little they really knew about their father and husband. Mia, already hyperanalytical, finds herself analyzing everything and everyone around her even more than usual, and she must carefully consider the meaning and possible repercussions of every piece of information they uncover.
Kim does many things right in “Happiness Falls,” and the first one is Mia. Smart, sassy, loving, and headstrong, Mia has a unique voice that makes even the most scientific and philosophical passages feel like a conversation with a friend. Her intelligence has its pitfalls, though. As someone who usually has an explanation for everything, her anger matches her growing concern when everything she thought she knew about her father starts to crumble; she even starts to doubt her own feelings. The result is a likable character with a strong voice who quickly almost forces readers to empathize, especially regarding Eugene.
While Mia is the narrator, it is Eugene who emerges as the most surprising character. Initially diagnosed with autism, Eugene has had a complicated journey, and Kim shows, with equal amounts of research, empathy, and respect, what it’s like to live with a child with special needs and how that can affect a family and make them grow in many ways.
One of the most interesting aspects of “Happiness Falls” is the variety of elements Kim weaves into the core of the story, and Angelman syndrome is one of them. This is a story about a father who vanished, but it quickly morphs into a narrative that delves deep into autism, Angelman syndrome, and neurodivergence. In addition, Mia’s dad left behind a notebook detailing his research into the nature of happiness, trying to come up with a system to measure it — a “happiness quotient” — in order to increase his own family’s happiness. But that, Mia learns, means he conducted experiments on his own family.
“Happiness Falls” packs a lot, but it also moves at breakneck speed. After Mia’s father goes missing, the theories change with every new piece of information, and there are a lot of pieces: He took money out from one of his accounts; he was in contact with a strange woman no one in the family knew about; he might have received a cancer diagnosis; he was working on his happiness research, and that’s all within the first third of the book. By the time we reach the middle of the book and a friend of John’s texts him an image from a video that seems to show Eugene attacking his father right before he went missing, readers realize the entire narrative is still a big collection of mysteries. And that Kim is in control of the chaos from the very first page. (The novel’s ominous opening line: “We didn’t call the police right away.”)
On its surface, “Happiness Falls” is a gripping mystery about a missing father. However, right below that is a nuanced story about a family who’s forced to navigate incredibly tough circumstances. The only way for them to make it through is to learn, and accept, as much as they can about each other. Deftly crafted and truly riveting, this novel about heartache and hope, the author’s second, proves Kim is a powerful voice that’s here to stay.
by Angie Kim
Hogarth, 400 pp., $28
Gabino Iglesias is a book critic and the author of “The Devil Takes You Home.”