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Spectacular Happiness: A Novel Hardcover – July 17, 2001

4.3 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Amazon.com Review

When is a bomb not a bomb? When it's a novel, of course. Peter D. Kramer's Spectacular Happiness is an intellectual blitzkrieg of a book, setting off depth charges of meaning long after its pages are closed. Kramer's protagonist, Chip Samuels, is the sort of man for whom the term mild-mannered seems to have been coined: college teacher, part-time carpenter, ambivalent anarchist, noncustodial father of a dearly loved son. When someone begins blowing up beachfront homes in his Cape Cod hometown, Samuels is the last person anyone should suspect--and yet the bombing campaign is his personal form of redemption, the work of an ex-radical finally coming into his own. Ironically, the resulting media frenzy turns him into the last thing any right-thinking radical would wish to become: a celebrity, a spokesperson, a rich man, an insider.

Samuels's story takes the shape of an extended journal written for his absentee son. It's a risky form for a novel, both introspective and deliberate, and for the first third of the book its discursive style can be a challenge to read. Kramer is the psychiatrist author of the bestselling Listening to Prozac, and his first novel often proceeds according to the rhythms of nonfiction: light on scene and dialogue, heavy on exposition and allusion. He seems never to have met a book he didn't like, and he's not at all afraid to wear his learning on his sleeve, repeatedly citing Marx, Robbe-Grillet, Sartre, Dickens, Thoreau, and Walter Benjamin. Fortunately, it's all in the service of character, and not quite as intimidating as it sounds.

Ultimately, Samuels has the temperament not of a terrorist but of an artist. He finds Marx inferior to Dickens as a thinker, and describes the bombings as a form of personal expression, reflecting his own quiet fastidiousness and keen sense of the absurd. But what are the moral implications of his actions? We're left to work that one out for ourselves, with not even a crazed manifesto to point us in the right direction: "I have never intended to impose political solutions on my neighbors. I have hoped to say at most, We know the dilemma we are in, the human dilemma." The human dilemma is, of course, the territory of both the psychiatrist and the novelist. And in his first foray into fiction, Kramer asks questions he can't answer and raises issues he won't resolve--a kind of "silent therapy" for a culture that could use some time on the couch. --Mary Park

From Publishers Weekly

Kramer's chief claim to fame to date is his passionate anti-Prozac treatise (Listening to Prozac), but this debut novel about a disgruntled Cape Cod teacher who becomes an ecoterrorist should help earn him a serious literary audience as well. Kramer's protagonist is Chip Samuels, a thoughtful, passionate community college teacher who becomes increasingly disgruntled as he underachieves in midlife, his marriage falls apart, he loses his beloved son and he sees society becoming increasingly driven by meaningless consumption. He expresses his dissatisfaction by teaming up with an old lover in a plot to blow up expensive beach houses as a protest against the privileges of wealth and the degradation of the environment, starting with the home of a local mafioso whom they also manage to implicate in the plot. But Samuels avoids the tragic fate his actions seem to foreshadow when the media picks up his story and, in a bizarre commentary on the cult of celebrity, turns him into a counterculture hero, leading him into a new life as a network talking head. The combination of the near-total absence of dialogue and an extremely introspective approach makes the first half of this novel a rather tough go, but once Kramer gets his story in gear he proves to be an extremely literate author as he throws himself into the task of creating a very memorable protagonist who becomes both hero and antihero. The depth, quality and ambition of Kramer's prose will surprise those expecting a superficial crossover effort. This novel will score high on reviewers' and readers' checklists. (July)Forecast: Kramer's fame will give this novel instant exposure, but it may cause some readers to dismiss the book, too. Respectful reviews will be required to tilt the balance. If they materialize, sales potential is high, helped by a five-city author tour.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; First Edition edition (July 17, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684864304
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684864303
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,506,273 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
There is everything to like in this novel.
First there is Kramer's love of words. Perhaps we should not be surprised that a Harvard grad who spent two years reading literature at Oxford before going on to medical school should use the language with mastery. If not surprised, then, we are delighted. Delighted by his sensitivity to word and nuance, by the way characters and plot lines from classic novels are woven in, and by meeting fragments from the work of favorite poets worked seamlessly into the text.
Insight into time and place is marvelous, the beach-plum and cedar-shingled Cape of the fifties and the trophy homes of the New England shore in the new millenium.
Any graying SUV owners plagued by the nagging suspicion that they may have been on to something real in their barefoot, bell-bottomed, anti-materialist salad days will find validation in Kramer's vision.
Frustrated environmentalists who know that the ecosystem is dying around us while George W. fiddles, will find catharsis.
Most of all, however, we recognize ourselves in the pages of Spectacular Happiness. Kramer has a knowing finger on the pulse of our celebrity-obsessed, posession-conscious, tummy-tucked culture in a novel for our times.
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Format: Hardcover
I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Most of the houses in the neighborhood were built in the 1960s. They lie low against the forested hills. Many of the 1960s houses can barely be seen from the street, despite the quarter-acre lot sizes and the fact that most of the houses are 4-bedroom affairs. Returning to this neighbor (Mohican Hills) today, one's senses are assaulted by the 1990s houses. The builders razed the trees and pushed the foyer roof as high as possible. The new houses have perhaps twice the interior space as the old ones but 10 times the visual impact. Kramer's well-written, smoothly flowing book is about the same phenomenon on Cape Cod and how a representative couple of old-style Cape residents deal with it.
Caveat: It feels as though the psychiatrist author mined his patients' collective neuroses to build the characters in this book. This gives the characters a rich texture but it also is a bit scary. Is this what we (Americans) are really like? Are we all this damaged?
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By A Customer on January 7, 2002
Format: Hardcover
There is some very good writing in Peter Kramer's first novel. Having read all his non-fiction, I approached Spectacular Happiness with trepidation; how many contemporary physicians have been able to produce a fictional work that actually speaks to a wider reading audience? Well Peter D. Kramer has. Full of pathos, dark musings, original ideas and well-developed characterizations, I could barely put it down. I'm not objective: I love the Cape, which is a major character in the book, but I am a critical reader and found this book impressive -- not just as a "first stab" at fiction, but as an intelligent and original novel, with important things to say about the way we live and the struggles of our inner lives. I highly recommend it.
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Format: Paperback
I bought this book because I remember the author as a customer in a small art-house video store I used to work in. He always came in with his family, and they all seemed to make the most thoughtful choices for their viewing experience. I knew of his other books, however I gave up the psychology book of the week club after grad school, and never could bring myself to read one of them regardless of my fascination with this family. I was delighted when I saw that he wrote a fiction, and bought it immediately, even though it has been years since then, and I have long since departed from that part of the country.
I have to say, I began to cry upon reading the first passage of the book. In fact it took me several days to get past the first chapter due to the vividness of the emotion I was experiencing through this narrator. The love expressed for his son, and the reluctance to have to explain the events which follow in order to express it, are simply exquisite. This love, for his wife and his son, are what drive him to extrordinary means of expression. An adherence to the spirit of one's life and relationships requires strength, courage, and a perserverance rarely experienced in this world. They must be imagined. Though I like to believe this is what I saw, when I saw the doctor with the two boys and the dog, sometimes the wife, always the daughter, come to rent their weekly films.
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Format: Hardcover
Kramer weaves an intricate story of social fabric and personal pain. He can 'out-nuance' the best of them. The protagonist is likable in the tragic way of Hamlet. He deserved better; here he rallies and makes it so, enjoying some honest titillation along the way. But there is no escaping the current underneath this story: things out of balance require radical action. In light of recent events, it is even more poignant. Who of us deserves to make that change happen in a violent way, even if no lives are taken? I am still wrestling with it, and that makes it good.
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By A Customer on September 7, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Simply my favorite book of the summer/fall season. "Spectacular Happiness" is politically alert, and it's also exciting and touching-a great father-son story. The characters are well drawn, even the comic ones, like the psychotherapist who brings the other characters together. Really, a remarkable and original novel.
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