Published by Dzanc Books on 2007
Genres/Lists: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Read synopsis on Goodreads
Buy the book: Amazon/Audible (this post includes affiliate links)
If you haven’t heard of Happyland by J. Robert Lennon before, I won’t be surprised because the book’s road to publication was wrought with complications. Loosely based on the life of the Pleasant Rowland, founder of American Girls, the author struck a chord that scared the daylights out of his publisher, W.W. Norton. They dropped his book, but it was later published as a series through Harper ‘s Magazine and is now finally available for purchase, a decade later, through Dzanc Books.
When I first heard about Happyland, I was intrigued but its controversial history is what drew me to reading it sooner rather than later. It’s a fascinating story about Happy Masters, a force of nature whose determination to succeed takes a backseat only to her own confidence in herself. Strong-willed, decisive, and not one to dwell on emotional entanglements, Happy built her doll empire out of nothing and makes no apologies for her success. When she stumbles upon the quaint town of Equinox, NY, she quickly decides that it should be home to Happyland, a town dedicated to all things dolls. As she buys up properties and ingratiates herself in local politics and the local women’s college, she makes both fast friends and enemies, but it’s not always easy to tell them apart.
As Happy forges ahead with her plans, a group of stunning secondary characters help create a vivid portrait of a town caught up in the hoopla. There’s Dave, the bar owner who refuses to sell and Janet, the quiet college student who’s strange fascination with Happy borders on idolization. There’s also the gas station owner who hates Happy with a passion and the mayor who never expected to face “real” issues with the townspeople. As the townspeople gossip about what Happy’s intentions may or may not be, lines are drawn and sides are taken.
What I loved about this book is that it taps into the innate desire to protect one’s own. While the townspeople are divided on whether Happy’s developments are beneficial or not, the clash between protecting the old and developing the new is front and center. Lennon’s ability to describe the emotions and logic behind each character’s actions is insurmountable. Plus, Happyland culminates in an ending that Shirley Jackson would be proud of for its ability to tap into the dark side of human nature. So if you’re looking for an amazing book with some dark humor, Happyland is a surefire win.
Recommended for: Anyone who has owned an American Girl doll.