Now in their sixties, the friends have all but resigned themselves to the cards they’ve been dealt. But surrounded by an azure-blue ocean, cocoa trees, and a vibrant local culture, they begin the process of coming to terms with the lives they left behind—and reinventing themselves for the future that still lies ahead.
|Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
|5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)
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An Invitation and a Challenge
Korototoka, Fiji, July 25, 2012
My dear friend—
Can I still call you that?
The stamps on the letter made you curious, I’m sure, but you’ve probably already realized who it is. Stamps with pictures of iguanas and parrotfish could only come from Kat. A voice from a time long ago, a fellowship we once had. Do you think we could ever find it again?
Thank you for the hugs and the kind words when I needed them the most—I know it wasn’t possible to drop everything and travel across the world for the funeral. From where you are, it must be hard to imagine someone being sung into eternity with a four-p art Fijian harmony while the mourners come carrying woven mats, of all things. How many straw mats does a departed one need, you might ask. And I would have to answer, as Ateca explained to me: “As many as it takes to honor Mister Niklas’s life.” So I’ve spread the mats out across the porch. Dried palm fronds in a checkered pattern, an anchor for the body and a firm foundation for the thoughts, which often plunge into the fiery sunsets alongside the bats here in Korototoka.
At night the longing comes, the sharp and aching longing for Niklas and the life we lived before. A marathon of global misery, you might say. A long- distance race with a global pandemic or an environmental crisis at every water station? Yes, that too. But I wouldn’t change a thing. The malaria bouts, the lack of water, the nights of itching flea bites— they taught me to make do. Whether it’s making do without money, toilet paper, shampoo, or a blue-c hip pension. And so here I am, sitting on a tiny speck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, mateless, but not helpless.
And not friendless, I hope. I have nine hectares of cocoa trees and a house with plenty of room. I have a body full of minor aches and pains, but I’ve planted my feet on Fijian earth and I intend to stay here until the last sunset. Why don’t you join me? Leave behind everything that didn’t work out! Take with you everything that still matters and move into a room in Vale nei Kat, Kat’s House! This can be the place where we find each other again, and if there’s nothing to find, we’ll create something new!
I haven’t been the best at keeping in touch; I know there weren’t many updates from me from Nepal, Afghanistan, or Mauritius. But I’ve missed you, I’ve missed everyone in our old gang. I’ve read your letters and emails, admired your pictures of kids and grandkids. And now I wonder, would it be possible to bring us together again, after a gap of over forty years? Do you want to join me and walk the last leg together? To try to help each other if one of us trips and the other one limps, to dip our aching knees in the warm salty waves and bury our toes in white sand?
I’m not looking for free labor; the plantation is in good hands. Korototoka is a cocoa village, and Mosese, the manager, takes care of harvesting, fermenting, and drying the beans. But maybe we could start something new here, take a chance together? Perhaps make chocolate, or a delicious- smelling cocoa body lotion— what do you think?
I’m sure you understand why I couldn’t send this via email. A letter can take days and weeks on its journey from one world to another, and the words find the right depth and gravity along the way. As they fall into your hands right now, they’ve had time to mature and soften and be cradled by the paper’s curve, ready to entice you here. Can you taste the flavor of papaya and coconut? Can you hear the wind whistling through the palm trees on the beach? Can you see the arc of the horizon, where the Pacific Ocean meets the sky?
Of course, if the ice scraper, the engine heater, and the electric bill are more tempting, please put this in a drawer never to be opened again. A letter can easily disappear on its way across the seas, and the postal service from the Pacific is more unreliable than a tropical cyclone or a Fijian ministry post. In that case, you never received it, and no questions will be asked.
So I’m going to send this now, stroking my fingers across the stamps once more for luck, and hoping the wind will send you to me. Maybe Vale nei Kat can be a home for all of us, a place where we can dream, hope, drink, laugh, fight, and cry together. Until the wind sweeps us out over the waves and it’s our mats that are carried up the stairs and spread wide across the porch.
I’m broke! I’m so sorry!”
They haven’t seen each other in decades, and the first thing Sina finds herself blurting out to Kat is the depressing state of her finances— for goodness’ sake! She bites down on her lip hard, fighting the quiver, and opens her arms to the tall, smiling woman with the sunglasses on her head.
“I . . . oh, Kat! It’s so good to see you! You look amazing!”
In the arrivals hall at Nadi Airport, strumming a cheerful welcome melody, a ukulele band greets the shorts‑c lad tourists. The singer in a brightly patterned shirt and a flower tucked behind his ear winks at Sina, who quickly shuffles closer to Kat.
Sina’s worried frown gets lost in Kat’s welcome hug. “Bula vinaka! You’re here now, that’s what matters. One thing at a time, it will all work out. Let me look at you!” Kat pushes Sina away, flashing her a big, sparkling smile, and it’s just like old times. She pulls her close for another hug. “I can’t believe you’re actually here!”
Sina chokes back a few tears. She’s trembling with exhaustion after a journey that took her nearly forty‑ eight hours, and another loud opening chord from the ukulele trio startles her. A pair of wide hips draped in an orange floral pattern comes swaying toward her: “Bula, madam, welcome to Fiji!” The woman, smile aglow with a hundred luminous white teeth, places a flower garland around Sina’s neck. Sina grips her luggage cart tightly and stumbles after Kat as she heads out into the dark, hot, humid October night. Korototoka is a two‑ hour drive away.
The darkness is thicker than it is back home. As soon as they put the bright lights of the airport behind them, it’s like being in a tunnel without walls, so close and yet so open it makes Sina dizzy. “Look at the stars,” Kat encourages her, and Sina looks up and out of the open window. The night sky is a maze of shining dots, a frozen explosion of fireworks. Her head tips back, she has to pull her gaze back into the car. Kat looks at her and smiles: “Pretty amazing, huh?” Suddenly she slams on the brakes. Sina lurches forward and the seat belt catches her; she gets a glimpse of a scrawny horse careening toward the side of the road. Kat shakes her head and drives on, a little slower now. “It can be dangerous driving through the villages at night. The animals roam free— you never know when a cow will just appear in the middle of the road.”
The ocean on one side, trees on the other, sand dunes, fields with plants she doesn’t recognize. “Sugarcane,” Kat nods. “Sugar and corn are the two most important crops here.” The darkness is occasionally punctuated by clusters of houses, a light bulb flickers here and there. Sina squints to make out the shapes of the buildings, sees that some of the ones alongside the road are just small sheds made of corrugated metal. Is this how they’re going to live? She’s the first to arrive in Fiji. Ingrid and Lisbeth will be arriving over the next few weeks. And eventually Maya too— apparently there were some health problems she had to discuss with her doctor first. An unsettled feeling surges through Sina: is there room for all of them? She hopes they won’t be crammed in on top of each other.
But Vale nei Kat is no corrugated metal shed. As they approach Korototoka, they drive along a narrow path with houses on both sides: “This is the main road.” It winds down toward the beach, and at the end of the street Kat turns right into a courtyard: “And we’re here!” She parks outside a large one‑ story house with a roof that juts out like a pointy hat in the middle. A wide porch with an overhang wraps around the entire front side. The roof above the porch is supported by three columns with coarse ropes wound around them. A couple of small sheds line the perimeter of the courtyard, and a path edged with round stones disappears around the back of the house. There are wicker chairs and a hammock on the porch, illuminated by the glow of torches at the foot of the stairs.
As Sina tumbles out of the car, a mosquito‑ netted screen door creaks open, and a short, stocky figure appears with a frizzy mane of hair like a halo in the lamplight: “Bula vinaka, madam. Welcome!”
Kat has warned her that the housekeeper would probably be waiting for them even though it’s late. “Come say hello to Ateca,” she says now, as she drags Sina’s suitcase up the stairs. “She’s so excited that you’ve arrived.”
Sina stretches out her hand: “Nice to meet you.” But instead of reaching out her chubby hand, Ateca claps it over her mouth, which doesn’t stop the laughter from bubbling out between her fingers. Her whole body writhes in cheerful spasms as she hurries to take the suitcase from Kat: “I’ll bring it inside for Madam.” Sina doesn’t know what surprises her more, the unexpected laughter or being called “Madam” for the first time in her life. But she forgets it as soon as Kat waves her over to the porch railing: “You can’t see the view now, in the dark, but you can hear it, right?”
She can hear it. With her face turned toward the sea, Sina can hear Fiji welcoming her. A rush of sand against sand, a rhythm of water and moonlight and promises she can’t decode. The breeze is warm against her clammy skin, a gust of something sweet and satisfied, a drop of honey on her tongue.
Between the house and the beach is a belt of tall, thin tree trunks, standing dark against the pale moon. “Are those the cocoa trees you were talking about?” Sina asks, but Kat shakes her head: “No, no. The plantation is a little farther away, on the other side of the village. These are coconut palms, they grow everywhere here.”
She grabs Sina by the shoulders and gives her a hug. “You’re going to love it here, Sina,” she says. “Everything is going to work out just fine.”
Sina nods. Repeats it to herself, like an echo she wants to summon into being. Everything is going to work out just fine.
But that doesn’t change the fact that she’s broke. Without a cent to her name. Sina can’t believe she actually went through with it. Closed the door and left it all behind: the house, the leak around the chimney, and the car that needs new snow tires. Here she is in a strange bed in a foreign land, penniless. And so is Armand. Sina tosses and turns and heaves a deep sigh. But when isn’t Armand broke? Broke could be his middle name, she thinks, and pictures her son’s face in his passport with “Armand B. Guttormsen” printed below.
His passport is filled with stamps. From Argentina, where he stayed behind when the oil tanker sailed on: “I didn’t mean to, Mom, they gave the wrong information about when it was supposed to leave!” In Russia, it was the casinos that drew him: “It’s a dead cert, there’s a flood of cash over there, they don’t know what to do with it all!” Real estate in the Caribbean: “They showed me the properties, picture‑ perfect views, right on the beach. How could I have known the deeds were fake?” Secret, exciting oil riches in Canada, a luxury resort on the east coast of Malaysia: “A once‑i n‑a ‑l ifetime opportunity, you have no idea! Just add some tourists with fat wallets and it’ll be a gold mine!”
But there’s been very little gold, and she’s always been the mine, Sina thinks, and pulls the thin bedsheet tighter around her. A mine that’s been emptied, no, vacuumed out for all that glittered and then some. She turns over on her side as the wind fills the darkness outside the mosquito‑ screened windows with foreign sounds: the rustle of dry palm leaves, the rolling thunder that lies beneath everything and is the ocean. She can’t believe she’s here. Sina Guttormsen, sixty‑ six years old, retired, new resident of a house, no, a bure is what they call it, in Fiji. Fiji! She hadn’t even known where it was— she had pulled out a map of the South Pacific and pored over the tiny dots north of New Zealand, like crumbs torn off the east coast of Australia and scattered carelessly across the ocean between Vanuatu and Tonga. The Pacific Ocean! Her heart beats dry and hard in her chest.
Her heart, over the eternal, patient rumble out there.
Reading Group Guide
These discussion questions are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Pieces of Happiness: A Novel of Friendship, Hope and Chocolate by Anne Ostby.
1. “A letter can take days and weeks on its journey from one world to another, and the words find the right depth and gravity along the way.” (pg. 2) Kat’s letter changed the lives of her friends. Would an e-mail have had the same impact?
2. The author writes early on in the novel that age “claws around your eyes after thirty, grabs the corners of your mouth and yanks them down around forty” (pg. 11). What did you think about the book’s honesty about aging and how it affects women? How large is the role that culture plays in attitudes toward women and aging?
3. Kat, Sina, Ingrid, Lisbeth, and Maya each have very distinct personalities: Of the five friends, which one did you relate to the most and why?
4. If you got a letter from an old friend asking you to live with her on a cocoa farm in Fiji, would you go?
5. Ateca is the “Greek chorus” of the novel. How did her heartfelt prayers and vivid dreams add to your enjoyment of the story?
6. The friendship between the characters is complicated and inspiring. Could you live with four of your closest friends? What about entering into a business partnership with friends?
7. Given her health issues, it is Maya who takes the biggest risk of all of the women, but the rewards are great. Do you think her quality of life is better than it would have been if she had stayed at home?
8. Is Kat right in keeping Maya’s condition from the other women?
9. Does Sina do the right thing in telling Lisbeth who Armand’s father is? How did this revelation affect their relationship?
10. Armand’s visit is a turning point in the novel. Discuss the significance of his arrival—and his departure.
11. Fiji is so present in the novel, it’s almost like a character rather than a setting. Were you inspired to plan a trip to Fiji after reading Pieces of Happiness?
12. If planning a trip to Fiji isn’t in the cards, did the novel inspire you to get out of your comfort zone in some small way? Maybe get your morning coffee at a different café or take a different route on your daily run?
13. How much chocolate did you eat (or want to eat) while reading Pieces of Happiness?