Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime novels don’t fit neatly into the conventional ‘crime novel’ structure. And that can be good for the genre, as it makes it more flexible and inclusive. That’s the sort of novel Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy is, so let’s turn the spotlight on that story today.
Wealthy and successful São Paolo businessman Olavo Bettencourt has a life many people would envy. He has a beautiful home in an exclusive, well-guarded part of the city; he has a beautiful ‘trophy wife,’ Mara, and a healthy young son, Olavinho.
Olavo is an advertising executive, so he’s very much in demand by people who want their businesses to do well. And with Brazil’s government getting more open, political candidates are using advertising more and more. All of this draws Olavo into a web of corrupt deals and dirty business. He likes the money and power, and he certainly likes the ‘perks.’ But he’s really much more trapped in that web than he thinks. And his world is not nearly as perfect as he’d like to think it is.
Olavo’s vulnerability becomes all too clear when a gang decides to kidnap Olavinho. It’s a logical choice, since Olavo has a great deal of money, and would likely do anything he’s told in order to get his son back. The plans are made, and the gang sets everything in motion. On the appointed morning, the kidnappers wait near the Bettencourt home, where they’ll abduct Olavinho as he’s being transported to the private school he attends. But they end up kidnapping the wrong boy.
Instead of Olavinho, they’ve abducted the mute son of the Bettencourt’s housekeeper. Now, the gang has to decide what to do with the boy they took, and what to do about their plans to kidnap the real Bettencourt son. For his part, Olavo has to decide what to tell the media and the police. After all, the more that’s known about him, the more vulnerable he is to criminal investigation.
As frantic efforts are made on both sides, the story follows the various people involved, and readers learn a great deal about how business is done in contemporary Brazil.
In one sense, this is a thriller. As the action plays out, there are various twists and turns in the plot. There’s violence, too. And the pacing is fairly swift. That said, though, (at least for me), the story doesn’t require the number of suspensions of disbelief that are sometimes seen in thrillers.
As the story unfolds, we get to know the characters, and we see beneath the public masks they wear. Olavo Bettencourt, for instance, is a much-disliked person. He is venal and corrupt, and thinks he’s a lot more important than it turns out that he is. He’s usually dismissive of his wife, treating her more as an ‘arm decoration’ for parties and a ready bed partner than an actual person. And he can be verbally cruel to her, too.
For her part, Mara is also deeply flawed. She’s clawed her way up from being a poor girl from the proverbial backstreets, and has done a lot of questionable things to get there. She likes having security and comfort, but she loathes her husband. And as the book goes on, she gets more and more disgusted with playing the role of his beautiful mannequin. To say the least, this isn’t what you’d call a functional family.
There are some sympathetic characters in the novel. For example, it’s easy to feel for Irene, the family housekeeper and mother of the boy who has actually been abducted. She sees everything that goes on in the family, and does what she has to do to survive in a country that offers few opportunities if you don’t have money.
And the country – contemporary Brazil – is an important element in the story. As we learn about Olavo’s many deals and the people behind them, we learn how politics, corporate money and wealth work together there. We also see some of the stark differences among the social classes. While it’s hard to have sympathy for the kidnappers, it’s not hard to see how one might take advantage of an opportunity for quick, easy money, where nobody’s supposed to get hurt.
The story is told from several different perspectives. There’s Mara’s, there’s Olavo’s, there’s Irene’s, and there’s the point of view of one of the kidnappers. There are also other characters whom we meet. Readers who prefer one point of view will notice this.
It’s also worth noting that this novel isn’t told in a linear, chronological fashion. It begins with the kidnapping and its fallout, and then slowly tells the story of what led to it. Then the story continues with the aftermath, approaching it from a variety of perspectives. Readers who prefer a story to be told chronologically will notice this. Each section is identified by the date and time, so it’s a straightforward business to work out when the events happen. But it does ask for attentiveness.
This isn’t a light novel with a happy ending. But there are signs that life will go on. Some of the characters make choices that suggest that things will get better; and we can see how some things will be all right again. The ending leaves the door open, as the saying goes.
Happiness is Easy takes a look at modern Brazilian society through the means of a high-profile kidnapping and its aftermath. It features some not-very pleasant characters (and some sympathetic ones), and raises some important questions about corruption, wealth and what really ‘counts’ as valuable. But what’s your view? Have you read Happiness is Easy? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 3 October/Tuesday, 4 October – The Good Boy – Teresa Schwegel
Monday, 10 October/Tuesday, 11 October – Inside the Black Horse – Ray Berard
Monday, 17 October/Tuesday, 18 October – The Gentlemen’s Club – Jen Shieff