A Review: Project Happily Ever After

Project Happily Ever After by Alisa Bowman (Running Press) Pub Date: 12/28/10

When Alisa Bowman asked colleagues if they would be willing to review her book, Project: Happily Ever After: Saving Your Marriage When the Fairtytale Falters, I told her I’d be glad to do it, but I warned her that I’m not a believer in traditional marriage, religion, or conservative values. Bowman (bravely) sent the ARC anyway, saying, “It’s not a conservative book.”

I harbored some skepticism regarding the whole endeavor. I don’t believe anecdotes from one layperson’s individual experience make a reliable self-help program. And, admittedly, I have a tendency to roll my eyes when people talk about happiness projects. These always strike me as the kind of projects undertaken by privileged folks with no actual problems. If they had some actual problems, I think they would be a lot happier, and then they wouldn’t need happiness projects.

Still, I read the book because I’d told the author I would. In the introduction, Bowman says of your faltering marriage, “You can probably make it better.” While that statement may lack the ringing confidence of the hucksters who so often promise what they can’t deliver, it certainly has the ring of truth. It was, I thought, a good start.

Then she grabbed me with the first sentence of Chapter 1: “I knew something was terribly wrong with my marriage when I planned my husband’s funeral.” I will let you guess why that particular sentiment resonated with me. By the time I got to her admission, “I think he secretly hates me,” I was hooked. All of a sudden I didn’t care about the trappings of the book and what it was supposed to do. I had gotten caught up in the story.

Bowman writes a fluid memoir that is both funny and true. I just wish she (or her editor/publisher) had let it stand on its own merits, and not tried to make it into a self-help book. The interjections (box-outs on some of the pages of each chapter, giving suggestions for what to do about your marriage) are an unfortunate distraction and often too simplistic and trite to be of much use: “Want to meet the man of your dreams? Stop looking for him.”

Where Bowman really hits her stride is in telling her story as truthfully as she can, with all the parts we usually leave out when we talk about our struggles to keep our relationships together. When, early in the book, she learns that it’s okay to be a quitter, I found myself checking the title again. Shouldn’t someone teaching me to be committed to my marriage tell me to stick with it?

But her point isn’t to stick with it for the sake of sticking with it. Her point is to own your decisions. Decide what you want and make it happen. Her mantra is, if you want something, you have to try everything to get it—a mindset that can make a difference in any part of your life, not just your marriage.

Where the self-help part of the book works best is in illuminating this principle: she shows what owning your decisions looks like in practice. For Bowman’s story alone, Project: Happily Ever After is a book worth reading, regardless of your marital state and your current level of happiness (or misery). Whether you find the self-help aspect useful is probably highly subjective, but unless you have a heart of flint, you’ll find yourself rooting for Bowman every step of the way.

A few of my favorite things

LESSONS IN MAGIC
A CERTAIN KIND OF MAGIC
THE IMPROBABLE ADVENTURES OF A MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN
DOJO WISDOM FOR WRITERS

1 Comment

  1. That first sentence would have hooked me too, as planning my husband's funeral was something I did quite a lot a one point in my marriage. Not the same thing as wanting to kill him, which I didn't, but my unhappiness was such that if he had died, I would have been freer to make my own decisions. In the end, we divorced – more confrontational, less sad.

    You write a good review – I particularly liked the part about happiness projects – and if I'd read this a few years ago, would have rushed out to get the book. As it is, I'd pick it up anyway.

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