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Happiness for Beginners: A Novel

Happiness for Beginners: A Novel

by Katherine Center


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From the New York Times bestselling author of How to Walk Away and Things You Save in a Fire

Helen Carpenter can’t quite seem to bounce back. Newly divorced at thirty-two, her life has fallen apart beyond her ability to put it together again. So when her annoying younger brother, Duncan, convinces her to sign up for a hardcore wilderness survival course in the backwoods of Wyoming—she hopes it’ll be exactly what she needs.

Instead, it’s a disaster. It’s nothing like she wants, or expects, or anticipates. She doesn’t anticipate the surprise summer blizzard, for example—or the blisters, or the rutting elk, or the mean pack of sorority girls. And she especially doesn’t anticipate that her annoying brother’s even-more-annoying best friend, Jake, will show up for the exact same course—and distract her, derail her, and . . . kiss her.

But it turns out sometimes disaster can teach you exactly the things you need to learn. Like how to keep going, even when you think you can’t. How being scared can make you brave. And how sometimes getting really, really lost is your only hope of getting found.

Happiness for Beginners is Katherine Center at her most heart-warming, captivating best—a nourishing, page-turning, up-all-night read about how to get back up. It’s a story that looks at how our struggles lead us to our strengths. How love is always worth it. And how the more good things we look for, the more we find.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250765253
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/01/2020
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 112,703
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.15(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

KATHERINE CENTER is the New York Times bestselling author of over a half dozen novels, including What You Wish For, Things You Save in a Fire, and How to Walk Away. Katherine has been compared to Nora Ephron and Jane Austen. The Dallas Morning News calls her stories, “satisfying in the most soul-nourishing way.” Katherine recently gave a TEDx talk on how stories teach empathy. Her work has appeared in USA Today, InStyle, Redbook, People, The Atlantic, Real Simple, and more. She lives in Houston with her husband and two kids.

Read an Excerpt

Happiness for Beginners

By Katherine Center

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Katherine Center
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-4769-9


If you want to put me in Hell, plunk me down in the middle of a party where I don't know anyone. If you want to be really thorough, fill the place with drunken college kids. And make sure every other one manages to spill a drink on me. Don't tell me about the party in advance, so I show up in sweatpants and ponytails. While you're at it, put a bubble-gum pink cat carrier under my arm. With a pissed-off mini dachshund inside.

Actually, don't. Because then you'll turn into my brother Duncan. And trust me: You don't want to be Duncan.

Here's what he did this time. He said he'd watch my dog, Pickle, while I was out of town for three weeks. I reminded him that she was a bit of an ankle-biter and not a huge fan of the human race. Or the canine one. Or living creatures in general. Still, Duncan swore he wanted to with such sincerity that even after knowing him for a lifetime, I said okay. He swore to devote himself to her comfort the whole time I was gone. He even teased me that he'd burn a meat-scented candle to help her feel at home.

We agreed I'd drop Pickle off the night before I left, but by the time it was time, Duncan had forgotten the whole plan as if it had never existed. Instead, he'd decided to host a "small gathering of good friends" with his roommate, Jake, bartending. Jake, for his part, had invented a drink called "the Lambada" mixed with homemade moonshine that he swore would get you laid if you even just sniffed it.

Suddenly a hundred people were crammed into an apartment the size of a refrigerator. And one of them was me.

The worst part wasn't even that Duncan kept doing this kind of thing. It was that I kept falling for it. And now my emotionally challenged pet had to suffer.

Duncan, as always in these moments, was nowhere to be found.

I pushed my way through to his room, which was empty. Not empty of dirty boxers on the floor, or three-week-old Chinese takeout containers, or posters with girls in bikinis—just empty of Duncan. In the corner, the recliner he'd rescued from the heavy trash was piled taller than me with dirty laundry. A six-month-old tangle of Christmas lights hung from a sad nail, flashing on and off like Vegas.

I picked my way over to the unmade bed, set Pickle's carrier down, and tilted it up to peer in at her face. Her top lip was caught on the teeth. The ears were drooping. The eyes were all betrayal.

"You don't want to live here, do you?" I said.

To my surprise, a voice behind me answered back. "I don't mind."

It was Jake. Housemate, bartender, and Duncan's best friend since tenth grade. But it took me a second to register, and not just because he was standing in a corner, somewhat out of sight. He looked different—radically different—than the last time I'd seen him. When had that been? I had no idea. Long enough for him to grow like a foot taller, and to fill out in all those good boy places, like shoulders and arms, and to get a vast improvement of a haircut that spiked up in the front. I knew it was him, of course—but he looked so unlike the person I pictured on the rare occasion that I thought of him, I couldn't help but confirm: "Jake?"

He raised a hand. "Hi, Helen."

"Were you hiding back there?"

"I wasn't hiding," he said with a frown. "I was in the nook."

"The nook?"

"Yeah," he said, turning to gesture behind him. "We turned the closet into a nook. Video games, music. I use it mostly for reading."

"You and Duncan built a nook?"

"It's awesome. It's like a spaceship in there. Want to see?"

I gave him a look: really? I had never liked this kid. Everything that made me crazy about Duncan? Jake made it worse. After Duncan met Jake, he did half the dishes, half the homework, and twice the dope-smoking that he'd done before. I'd hoped they'd lose touch when they went off to college, but, instead, they became housemates. For four years. Now it was the summer after their senior year—though Duncan hadn't quite graduated—and they were still living like idiots.

Apparently, Duncan didn't have time to graduate, but he had time to build a spaceship nook. No, I did not want to see it. Nope.

Jake was staring at me in the way he always stared at me when we were in the same room: mouth slightly open, as if he were not just looking at me, but beholding me, somehow. From anyone else, it would have been flattering.

I finally had to say something. "You cut off your ponytail."

He nodded, remembering. "Yep," he said. "Yep. Grabbed a big pair of scissors and snipped it right off. Duncan keeps it in a coffee mug on the shelf and calls it our pet."

There was a pause, while Jake kept nodding.

"Was that for graduation?" I finally asked.

"No," he said, switching to head-shaking. "That was freshman year."

That got my attention. "You've had your hair short since freshman year? Haven't I seen you since then?"

"Oh, yeah. A bunch of times."

I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen him. I'd certainly never noticed he'd cut off all that nasty hair and spiked it into a dark Speed Racer look. I guess sometimes you just get an idea of a person in your mind, and that's what you see when you look at him, no matter what.

"It could be the glasses," he offered.

I frowned.

"The new glasses," he said, tapping them. "I never wore glasses before this year."

"Oh," I said. "Right." It was becoming quite clear to me—and likely to him, too—that I'd never really looked at him before. He might have insisted he'd always worn a pirate patch, and I couldn't have argued.

"I like them," I said then.

"They're very Nixon administration," he said. "Duncan's started calling me Apollo Thirteen."

So there we had it. Haircut, hipster glasses, and the mysterious addition of all kinds of muscles. Three was a magic number after all. "Well," I said, looking away. "It's a thousand times better."


Another pause.

"Are you looking for Duncan?" Jake asked then.

"Yes!" I said, and it all came back—how mad I was. "He's supposed to dog-sit for me."

"That's a dog in there?" He peered in. Pickle growled.

The music outside the bedroom seemed to get louder. "We were supposed to do a drop-off tonight," I said. "Duncan was not supposed to be hosting Girls Gone Wild."

Jake wrinkled his nose in apology. "He probably forgot."

"Of course he forgot," I said. "It's Duncan. And that's why I'm leaving. But first I want to thank him profusely for letting me down. Again."

Jake nodded like he really got it. "He's big on the offering, not so big on the actual doing."

I shook my head at my own stupidity. "I never should have agreed."

"It's hard, though," Jake said. "He really means it when he offers. You just have to train yourself to say no. I've got it on a tattoo: ALWAYS SAY NO TO DUNCAN."

I tilted my head. "Really?"

He smiled like I was adorable. "Not really. I'm kidding."

I sighed.

"Great ponytails, by the way," he added.

Pickle started barking then—loudly, over and over. "Do you know where Duncan is?" I asked.

He nodded. "He's in my room. That's why I'm here."

I shook my head. "Why aren't either of you actually attending your own party?"

"Um," Jake said, turning his eyes up to the ceiling to think. "Well, I'm in the middle of this great book, so I took a bartending break to see what happens next, but I'm pretty sure Duncan might be getting lucky."

I put my hand over my eyes. "Please tell me you're kidding again."

"Nope," he said. "I seem to be sexiled."

I dropped my hand to look at him.

"That's when you're exiled from your room," he explained, "because someone else is having sex there."

"I know what sexiled is," I said. "They had that word even way back when I was in college."

Jake nodded approvingly.

"Why is he in your room?" I asked.

Jake gestured around like it was obvious. "You can't bring a girl in here."

I scanned the bikini posters. "But yours is okay?"

He shrugged. "My filth level is lower."

I sighed again. There were very few things Duncan could be doing that I wouldn't be willing to interrupt right now, but "getting lucky" was one of them. "Can you give him a message for me?" I asked.

"Sure," Jake said. "Anything."

"Tell him he's a moron, and he can kiss my ass."

Jake nodded as he committed it to memory. "Got it."

"Don't forget," I said, as I bent down to lift Pickle's carrier.

He crossed his heart. "I won't forget," he said. "Especially the part about your ass."

Was he flirting with me? He was ten years younger than I was! Uppity behavior like that demanded an icy stare-down. But, in honor of the fact that he'd cut off that greasy ponytail, I let it slide.

I was at the door when he said something that stopped me. "Thanks for the ride, by the way."

I turned back with my hand still on the knob. "What ride?"

Jake looked flummoxed for a second, then frowned. "The ride?" he said. "Tomorrow?"

"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm actually going out of town tomorrow, so I can't give you a ride anywhere." Not that I would have, anyway. Had I ever given him a ride to anything? What was he thinking?

"I know," he said. "You're going to Wyoming. To go hiking. On a survival course."

"That's right," I said, surprised that Duncan had conveyed so many details correctly.

"I'm also going to Wyoming tomorrow. To go hiking—"

And then, with dread, I knew what he was going to say.

"—on the same survival course."

I set Pickle down. "I'm sorry. What?"

"We're going to the same place," he said, like it all made perfect sense. "Duncan said you wouldn't mind giving me a ride."

It didn't make sense. Why would this kid Jake be going on the same trip as me? How could the universe even let that happen? This was something I was doing for myself, on my own. A Back Country Survival Company course, no less. BCSC courses were famously hard-core, invariably grueling, and occasionally life-threatening. It was a big deal for me. It was supposed to be a spiritual journey. It was supposed to signify my bouncing back after the worst year—or six—of my life. Duncan's goofy friend could not be coming, too. He was not invited.

"But this is something I'm doing alone," I said matter-of-factly, in a mind-melding tone that always worked beautifully on the first graders in my class.

"Well," he said, "it's twelve people plus the instructor, so you won't exactly be alone."

Not a first grader, then. "But, I mean, alone like on my own."

"On your own with eleven other people," he confirmed. "And me."

This was crazy. "How can you be coming on my trip?"

"Technically, you are coming on my trip," he said. "Duncan only knew about it because I was going."

Duncan. This was all his fault. Again. As usual. "But he never said anything about you," I said.

"I think at the time you signed up, I thought I couldn't go. But now I can." He shrugged, looking pleased.

This was not the plan. The plan, as I had fantasized for the last six months, was to drive out to Wyoming and have a brave adventure with a bunch of strangers that would totally change not just my life, but my entire personality. The plan was to set out alone into the world, conquer it, and return home a fiercer and more badass version of myself. The plan did not include anybody but me—especially not, of all people, Jake.

I made an apologetic face. "I'm so sorry," I said, like this settled things, "but I'm supposed to stay with my grandmother on the trip out."

"Grandma GiGi? She loves me."

"She couldn't," I said. My grandma GiGi didn't love anybody except me. And Duncan. On occasion.

"She does. I swear. Call her."

"I'm not going to call her. I've got things to do. On the drive back, I have to go to a bar mitzvah to see some old friends."

He nodded. "The son of your high school boyfriend and your high school best friend. Right? Why would you go to that?"

I gaped. This kid knew way too much about my life. "I'm going," I said, "because we're friends on Facebook now, and because they asked me to, and because it's not healthy to hold a grudge."

"You're friends on Facebook?"

"Yeah. Except I never, ever go on Facebook." I blinked. "Why do you even know about any of this?"

"Duncan told me," he said with a shrug. "That's fine. I don't need a ride back. Just out."

"You're not coming back?" I said.

"Eventually I'm coming back," he said. "But first I'm going to Baja. Like four days after the BCSC trip ends. I fly out of Denver." He paused. I guess he expected me to ask him why he was going.

I didn't.

He continued. "I snagged a research assistantship for a field study on whales."

I stared at him.

"We're going to row out to their breeding grounds in little fishing boats and study how they interact with humans."

I gave in to curiosity. "Why?"

"Because it's fascinating."

"Is it?"

"It is. The whales swim up to the boats—voluntarily. People pet them."


He frowned like he couldn't imagine how I could ask that question. Like I should get it. Which in truth, I did. Why would you pet a whale? Because it wanted you to.

"It's powerful," he said. "People cry. People burst into show tunes."

"Show tunes?"

"People say they are never the same again."

"I don't see what's so great about petting a whale."

He leveled his gaze at me. "Yes, you do."

"No, I really don't."

We stared each other down.

After a minute, he went on, as if that tangent about whales had somehow settled the ride-to-Wyoming question.

"So it's just the ride out. You won't even know I'm there. I'll even sit in the backseat, if you want. Or you can strap me to the roof rack. I thought about making a music mix—but then I was like, 'No way, dude, she's got her own music'—so I'll just stay out of your way and not even make a sound and we'll listen to whatever you want. Even Carly Simon, or whatever—"

"No!" I almost shouted. I felt a rising sense of panic. Here was my life, proceeding without my consent. Again. "Look, I don't know what Duncan told you, or promised you, but I'm sorry: I cannot give you a ride. You'll just have to go on a different trip."

"But it's non-refundable."

I knew that, of course. "Then you'll just have to take the bus. Or something."

Jake studied my face. "Okay," he said. "No problem."

I exhaled. "Good. Great! I'll see you in Wyoming." I bent down to grab Pickle's carrier.

"Except ...?" he added.

I stood back up empty-handed. "Except what?"

"Except I'm pretty short on cash," he said. "I don't think I have enough for a bus ticket."

I closed my eyes. "You're short on cash?"

He shrugged. "We went over budget on the nook."

I glanced at the nook for confirmation. Then I looked back like, Seriously? "What about your parents?" I asked.

"Parent," he corrected. "Just my dad."

"Can't he help you out?"

"He's in Texas," he said, shrugging like he was on Mars. "And he doesn't exactly know I'm going on this trip."

I put my hands on my hips and tried to come up with another answer. Any other answer. Down at my ankles, Pickle was whimpering.

"It's cool," he said. "I can see it doesn't work. I'll just hitch."

"You're not hitching," I said.

"No, I've done it before—"

"You are not hitching," I said, in my teacher voice, and it felt for a second—before I realized the opposite was true—like I'd won.

"Okay," he said, shrugging. "I'll ride with you." Then he gave me a half grin that I couldn't help noticing made a very high-caliber dimple. "If you insist."


It's a thousand and one miles from Boston to Evanston, give or take. You can drive it in a day, but it's a long day. A fifteen-hour day, according to Google.

That's why I'd wanted to leave early—before the sun was up. That's why I'd wanted to get Pickle set up with Duncan the night before. If I made it home fast enough, I'd get a good visit with my grandmother. My grandmother who'd raised Duncan and me after our mother lost interest. My nothing-short-of-fabulous grandmother, who wore a bun with chopsticks in it, who I adored.

As it was, though, I had to wait for the vet to open so I could bring Pickle in for boarding.

Pickle was never happy about much, but going to the vet made her positively suicidal. As I waved a falsely cheerful good-bye, I felt a squeeze of regret and wondered if I should have left her at Duncan's place after all. But I couldn't have. That dog didn't know how lucky she was. If nothing else, the party last night had likely saved her life. If I'd left her with Duncan, I'd no doubt have returned weeks later to a desiccated pile of fur and a befuddled-looking brother, scratching his head, saying, "I thought she got awfully quiet."

Walking back to my Subaru after the drop-off, I realized I'd parked so hastily that I'd left one tire partway up on the curb. I hadn't even noticed at the time, but, back out front, the wonky tire was the first thing I saw. The second thing I saw was Jake, standing right next to it, holding a Starbucks coffee.


Excerpted from Happiness for Beginners by Katherine Center. Copyright © 2015 Katherine Center. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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