36-year-old Theo returns to Chicago after many years to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend Maria – the starting point to a trip backward in time through Theo’s more than difficult upbringing. In short scenes we move from the unhappy submissive adult Theo has become to the happy baby he used to be.
Happy Baby is a difficult book because it tells such a difficult story. And while I appreciated much about it, it didn’t quiet reach me in a way it could have.
While Happy Baby is not autobiographical, Elliott did (partially) grow up in the welfare system and he can draw on his experiences from there to tell this story – in which the welfare system and especially its failings play a big part. This works absolutely to the book’s advantage, especially since the storyline would have dissolved completely into stereotypes if it hadn’t been handled with care and insight.
I did feel like that was exactly the fate of the BDSM angle, though. Drawing the direct line between sexual abuse experienced to sexual abuse desired is problematic in itself and a little tropey. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but it feels a little flat here and it pathologizes BDSM unnecessarily.
But I have to say that the clear prose and, even more effectively the backwards structure of the book really worked. Instead of chipping away from the happy baby – which would have automatically put the focus on what remains of the child -, Theo is slowly being put back together again – which puts the focus on what (and how much) was lost on the way.
Happy Baby is an almost hopeless book. And that was probably my biggest problem with it. I feel that a little shard of hope would have been necessary to allow me to connect more with the book, to find a way in. I did suffer with Theo, but his story just didn’t hit home like it should have.
Summarizing: It’s strong, definitely strong enough to warrant giving it a try.