Dual narratives of two independent women fuel ‘A Matter of Happiness’

Tori Whitaker’s historical novel is set in 1920s Detroit and modern-day Kentucky.

A faded diary, a rusty old car and a deep love of bourbon bring two women from the Bluegrass state together in “A Matter of Happiness,” Atlanta author Tori Whitaker’s tender and lighthearted work of historical fiction that journeys between Kentucky’s present-day Bourbon Trail and the bustling metropolis of 1920s Motor City, Detroit. Whitaker’s multigenerational dual narrative probes into how women, driven by a thirst for success and independence, have advanced over the last century while exploring what it has cost them to achieve their dreams.

Great Aunt Violet was the most influential person in Melanie’s childhood, a woman who not only told Melanie she could create a life of her own design but modeled it, too. For Violet, who was born at the turn of the 20th century, that meant abstaining from marriage to maintain control of her life. In 2018, Melanie is embracing the example of her hip spinster aunt and choosing her career over love.

The decision isn’t difficult after her fiancé abruptly moves across the country. Unapologetically a “bourbon girl who would never leave Kentucky,” Melanie does what her late Aunt Violet would’ve done and channels her broken heart into landing a promotion at a Louisville distillery. Melanie’s love of bourbon is in her blood, a gift from Violet who achieved an impressive career in the distillery business decades ago.

“A Matter of Happiness” showcases bourbon as an industry, a cultural anchor and a beverage while showing “good people having a good time and drinking responsibly.” Whitaker’s unifying depictions of women coming together to enjoy a vice with restraint keeps the narrative focused on the plight for equality. It lends a wholesomeness to the story while effectively demonstrating how attitudes have morphed through the decades.

While Melanie is clearing the family garage of the broken-down car she inherited from Violet, she recalls her aunt spent a few years during prohibition working in Detroit. Wondering if that’s where Violet obtained the obscure classic — a 1923 Jordan MX Playboy — Melanie digs around in the trunk. She’s tickled to discover an ad for the automobile revealing how striking it looked brand-new, and she’s intrigued to find Violet’s diary, complete with instructions for Melanie to “take what you will and bury the rest.”

In alternating chapters, Melanie and Violet take turns revealing the intimacies of their lives. While Melanie is jumping through hoops to obtain her promotion and figuring out what to do with her aunt’s old car, Violet moves to Detroit looking for work after Kentucky’s economy is decimated by prohibition. Contrasting the realities of two women from the same bloodline three generations apart provides a powerful backdrop with which to demonstrate societal change while reinforcing the strength of familial bonds.

Violet’s 1923 Jordan was a car marketed to an emerging demographic: young single women earning an income, the kind “who got to vote and smoked cigarettes and wore her skirts short.” The ad features a woman driving the Jordan while racing a cowboy on his horse and winning. It’s the personification of the modern independence Violet craves, and she becomes determined to own one as she folds into Detroit’s underworld, spending her evenings in speakeasies entertaining debonair gentlemen. Whitaker recreates the ethos with palpable vibrancy, conveying the dangers of tip-over raids and the excitement of the jazz age. Melanie finds young Violet’s behavior refreshingly eyebrow raising for the times and champions her success.

High on her own self-determination, Violet accomplishes more than she imagined possible. She advances professionally. She invests her money. She spends the night with her boyfriend, makes her own decisions and does a multitude of things Melanie takes for granted in 2018. As with her depictions of alcohol consumption, Whitaker tackles the taboo topic of female sexuality from a relatively chaste angle by focusing on how it reflects society’s shifting mores. Men are side characters in this story, and the greater emphasis is placed on how they hinder female autonomy. Throughout the narrative, Whitaker’s decision to gloss over the gritty side of life lends an innocence to her storytelling that conveys a youthful tone.

At times, Whitaker’s character motivation could use deeper exploration, like when Melanie reacts to her mother’s jab about attending graduate school by thinking about securing a $60,000 loan to refurbish Violet’s Jordan and there are places where emotional responses lack punch, as when Melanie’s fiancé “tilted his head like a puppy” when their three-year engagement dissolves.

The richness of this story lies in the strength of the female relationships. Melanie derives significant inspiration from Violet as she learns how much they have in common. One glaring difference: Violet has a loving relationship with her mother who supports her daughter’s independent choices. Melanie’s relationship with her mother is fraught with tension and disappointment. Hoping to inspire change, Melanie shares Violet’s diary with her mom.

But buried in the back is an explosive secret that will crack open deep issues between mother and daughter, challenge their placement in the family and question the history they believe to be true. As they come together through the experience of sharing Violet’s diary, Whitaker brings about a reckoning that is heartfelt and beautiful.

Violet sacrificed a lot to maintain her independence in the 1920s. Melanie thinks she is following in her aunt’s footsteps by choosing success over love. But is it still necessary for a woman to have to choose, or will Melanie discover that’s a battle women like Aunt Violet have already won?


FICTION

“A Matter of Happiness”

by Tori Whitaker

Lake Union Publishing

359 pages, $14.95