Juliet "Ju-Ju" Judd had been working as a high profile art dealer when she was sentenced to two years in a Federal Correctional Facility in upstate New York for conspiring to illegally sell a stolen Tiffany Window. Wracked with shame, she blames it on her shady boyfriend Ritchie, although he got away with just paying a fine.
The Promise of Happiness opens as Ju-Ju is being released from prison and her brother Charles arrives from England to take her home. It has been two years of hell for Ju-Ju, her sudden incarceration splintering and fracturing her family. Ju-Ju's parents, Daphne and Charles, retire to a ramshackle cottage on the windswept coast of Cornwall, devastated and somewhat humiliated by their daughter's plight.
Charles can't bear the thought that everyone knows his precious daughter – always the apple of his eye - is in
jail. Ju-Ju's younger sister, Sophie, battles drug addiction while working as a film advertiser in London. And Charlie, the family success story, is making his fortune selling socks over the Internet.
The Judd family has been stumbling into darkness; Daphne - never actually believing that Ju-Ju was guilty - finds solace in prayer, cooking classes and flower arranging. She hopes for a resolution, "a manifestation of family," where one day they can all get together in Cornwall. Charles, bitter at being forcibly retrenched from a prestigious law firm in London, endlessly studies the cliffs and ekes out his days on the local golf course.
Obviously, they've found it difficult to cope, with the culmination being Daphne's ghastly
trip to America to visit Ju-Ju in prison. Charles refused to go; he just couldn't bear to see Ju-Ju suffer, fearing the sight of her in a prison uniform would demolish the unsteady edifice that his life has become.
He even admits, "I am being punished for my cowardice."
Deeply affected by Ju-Ju's incarceration, Charles loses his bearings. Wracked with disenchantment and deeply cynical, he tries to blame 9/11: "all the foreigners were suspect; the dragnet caught my Ju-Ju." Charles is intensely angry his life hasn't turned out the way it should have and all the hope he had invested in his daughter has come to nothing.
The characters in The Promise of Happiness are searching to find contentment in a world that has become far from bucolic. England is transforming, a new age is dawning, yet the Judds find it difficult to connect with this world, or with each other - intimacy does not come easy for them. They're also a family who are somewhat clannish and critical.
Even Daphne believes they are "from some natural aristocracy, "while Charles wants to "pull up the drawbridge against the barbarians."
Ju-Ju's experience has caused them to go through a forced but very necessary cycle of change. Her release from prison brings a new awareness, challenging their guilt and their willingness to encapsulate a grief that has so dominated their lives.
Author Justin Cartwright has written a complex, multifaceted story that explores the terrible costs of avoiding happiness. His themes are profound – the importance of beauty, class, and family and the idea that art is different from the rest of life, something pure and more authentic.
Throughout the novel, the Judd family is faced with some significant choices – especially Charles, as he
is the type of old-style reserved Englishman who knows he is out of touch with the modern world and holds a lot back. It is only through Ju-Ju's eventual arrival back in London that the family is reunited and can begin to move on and perhaps start to heal from this terrible tragedy that has so dominated their lives.