François Lelord’s international bestseller Hector And The Search For Happiness may be the most cheerful book ever to discuss cancer, prostitution, and drug trafficking. The constant perkiness makes the work a feel-good read, even though it often makes banal points. Written by a French psychiatrist about a French psychiatrist traveling the world in search of the cause and meaning of happiness, Hector is the first in a series of self-help-themed novels where Hector quests for understanding, and it’s the first to reach America. (Subsequent topics for Hector novels include love and friendship.) The book is written in the style of a children’s story, filled with euphemisms like “they did what people do when they’re in love” for sex, explanations of words like embargo, and periodic asides such as “perhaps by now you’ve realized that Jean-Michel and Marcel were more than just friends… and you’ve also understood why Jean-Michel was never very interested in girls.” Places are rarely named, just described in ways that make them identifiable.
This charming style goes a long way toward compensating for the weakness of Lelord’s revelations—for instance, that wealthy people can be miserable because they’re caught up in competition with others, while poor people can be happy and satisfied with their friends. Still, the moments good-natured, naïve Hector shares along the way with a Chinese prostitute, an African criminal, and an Afghani cancer patient come across as genuinely sweet. But when the cheery veneer cracks, the book does as well. Lelord has a lot of complaints about the United States, which he calls “the big country of More.” A tender section where he helps a woman feeling ill on his plane ride to America turns into a criticism on the country’s insurance system and propensity for malpractice suits. He criticizes Los Angeles’ wealthy citizens for isolating themselves by swimming in their pools at home, while the poor enjoy the beach.
Lelord never dwells on any one thing for long during the 164-page book, which is fortunate when Hector gets too self-righteous. But it’s disappointing when he merely dabbles in fascinating science about how emotions are expressed in the human brain, differences in how happiness is felt between men and women, and alcohol’s impact on mood. It provides a glimpse of the excellent book Hector And The Search For Happiness could have been if it used the same tone, but with more content and less clichés.