Norwegian novelist Anne Ostby’s novel of friendship, hope and chocolate transports readers to the beautiful South Pacific, where life is slower, the culture is more spiritual and native people take the time to care about the small things.
Different countries have their own views on aging but there’s an overriding idea in the western world that when you reach a certain age, the best days of your life are over. Ostby’s story opens with widow Kat making the decision not to accept that life after the obligatory retirement age should grind to a halt. Alone for the first time in her life, without any friends and family for comfort, she writes to four of her old school friends, inviting them to live on her cocoa plantation in Fiji.
Each of Kat’s friends accepts the offer, seeing the opportunity as a much-needed fresh start. They wave goodbye to their loneliness, damaged marriages, self-centred children, tedious jobs and financial worries, arriving at vale nei Kat (Kat’s house) to find an idyllic island paradise surrounded by cocoa trees. It’s an unfamiliar existence for the Norwegian women, who start to integrate themselves into Fijian life by adopting the traditional clothes, food, lifestyle and language.
Whilst usually sensible Ingrid takes to her new life with a zeal her friends didn’t think she was capable of, the others need a bit more time to assimilate. Image conscious Lisbeth finds it difficult to accept she’s getting older and losing the looks she’s always measured her worth by. Then there’s resentful Sina, who’s discovering that travelling halfway around the world isn’t enough to shake off her financially dependent son. Lastly there’s scholarly Maya, who’s suffering from a debilitating disease that’s slowly stealing the sharp mind she’s always relied on.
Under Kat’s watchful eye, the women embrace the culture by starting a business to make chocolate – bitter, healthy and delicious ‘pieces of happiness’. But the friends are all carrying their own internal baggage; secrets that have been weighing them down for too long and issues that need to be resolved. To truly let go of their old lives, they must first address what, or who, is holding them back.
“To be there for each other, that’s the bottom line here. To share the grey years with friends who remember the same green ones… To be each other’s support, without bureaucracy and time-limited appointments, based on familiarity and trust. To find what once was, to build the end around the beginning we once had.”
Though chocolate gives the friends a renewed sense of purpose, Pieces of Happiness is more than a book about five women in their twilight years embarking on a new business venture. This is a story about ageing and what that means to a culture that cherishes life, family and ancient customs. Ostby doesn’t shy away from the ugly parts of growing old – the aches, pains and incurable illnesses – but she doesn’t dwell on them either. Instead, the story embraces what the old can offer the young – wisdom, knowledge, experience and a helping hand. In turn, we see what the young can offer the elderly too – hope, inspiration, possibility, and a perspective untainted by the harshness of life.
Pieces of Happiness is also a tale of acceptance, forgiveness and friendship, revealing the best and worst of people as old wounds open and are given the chance to heal. The five friends share a childhood bond but they also harbour negative feelings towards one another at times. In close quarters, resentment can bubble up to the surface and boil over. This is often offset with the way the locals treat the newcomers and each other, with respect, kindness and empathy.
Ostby immerses the story in traditional Fijian ways. I could really envisage what it must be like to live on a cocoa plantation; feel the heat at night, smell the heady scent of flowers, breathe in the unpolluted sea air. It made for lovely reading, with a poignant, thoughtful and spiritual edge. If you need a novel to remind you of the simple pleasures in life – whether it’s the feel of sand between your toes, or the delight that comes from growing your own food – Pieces of Happiness will do just that.