Minerva (Minny) Watson lives with her mother, Pat in Evanston, Illinois. On her sixteenth birthday Minny's mother gives her a sweater but what Minny really wants is a ukelele. She also receives an unexpected gift from her father whom she hasn't seen since she was two years old. The packaged addressed to her and her mother is from a K.C. at Shedd Aquarium. Her father's name is Kenneth Chip so Minny assumes this package is from him, but she's puzzled about the address. Minny doesn't tell her mom about the package, instead opens it to find a note to each of them and a beautiful seahorse necklace. The note to her mother asks that she let Minerva finally meet her dad, while the one addressed to her asks to meet her and tells her that he is always thinking about her.
Minny knows very little about her dad; her parents met when he had a temporary job in Chicago, he has "Pacific island" genes and he left Minny and her mother never paying child support.
Minny and her best friend, Finnegan O'Connor, are on their way to audition for jobs as children's party entertainers for the store, Get Happy. On their way they meet Hayes Martinelli, who is also applying. They audition with another person, tall, gorgeous Cassie Lott who is there because Fin encouraged her to audition.
After the auditions, Minny sneaks downstairs one night to search on the computer and discovers a Keanu Choy on the Shedd Aquarium website. She learns that Dr. Choy is from Hawaii and specializes in the study of seahorses. Keanu Choy worked as an intern for the Shedd Aquarium seventeen years ago before moving away. His initials, the seahorses and his facial features lead Minny to believe that Keanu Choy is likely her father. This information leaves Minny puzzled; has her father changed his name to avoid paying child support or has her mother lied to her to keep her from finding him? Minny feels deeply conflicted because the kind letter her father sent her does not match with the person her mother has described to her as horrible and selfish. Fin encourages Minny to confront her mother but she's unable to do so. Instead she first tries to snoop through her mother's closet to find photo albums from when she was very young. When that doesn't work, Minny decides to forget about it and delve into her new job at Get Happy.
At Get Happy, the four are given their costumes that they will wear to birthday parties; Minny dresses as a Mermaid, Fin as a pirate, Hayes as a cowboy and Cassie as a princess. Their first parties are not raving successes except for Cassie whom the children adore. Jealous, Minny begins stalking Cassie online after she remembers that she writes a diving blog. It turns out that Cassie is an avid scuba diver who posts pictures of diving off Costa Rica or Cozumel. At this point most readers will clue into who Cassie is, especially after Minny discovers that Keanu Choy is leaving comments on Cassie's blog. This all leads Minny to start leaving nasty comments on Cassie's blog.
In biology, Ms. Feinstein tells Minny's class about the free lecture series offered by the Shedd Aquarium and the special lecture to be given by Keanu Choy on April 15. Minny knows she needs to find out if Keanu is her father but she cannot bring herself to ask her mother so when her mother calls her sister, Minny's Aunt Joan, Minny decides to ask her about her father. The talk with Aunt Joan reveals some shocking information; that her father is Keanu and that he was from Hawaii but left for California when a job offer came through. She also learns that her father now has a new wife and stepdaughter, and that he failed to meet Minny and her mother when they went to Disneyland when she was three years old. This information convinces Minny that she needs to quit Get Happy because Cassie reminds her of her father and move on with her life.
HOwever two things push Minny to do a rash thing that forces her mother to face up to what she's done to Minny. First her mother gives away the seahorse necklace that her father sent her for her birthday and secondly Minny inadvertently learns who Cassie really is. This pushes Minny into confronting her father in an embarrassing and very public manner, one that changes her life forever.
Amato tackles the subject of divorce and absent fathers in Get Happy very effectively and realistically. The National Fatherhood Initiative estimates that one in three children in the United States do not live with their fathers, leading them to be at risk for poverty, crime, obesity, teen pregnancy, incarceration and abuse. Although many fathers simply "check out" of their child(ren)'s life, many other fathers are prevented by mothers from having access to their children. This is what happened to Miranda in Get Happy. Miranda's mother not only set things up so that it was very difficult for Miranda's father to remain in contact but she also lies in order to prevent Minny from being able to find him and she hides every gift he sent. She deliberately thwarts any possible relationship and actively works to distort her daughter's view of the father she can only vaguely remember.
Especially well portrayed in Get Happy is the conflict between Minny's parents. The confrontation between Pat and Keanu as they argue through the door of Minny's house defines their conflict for readers who experience the intensity of their anger for each other through great use of dialogue. Minerva's mother, who claims to have Minny's best interests at heart, is shown to be selfish and uncompromising, while her father appears to have given up his right to see his daughter a little too easily.
It's obvious that Miranda has suffered greatly from the absence of her father and this too is well portrayed. At one point she states,
"I'd gone through a phase, when I was eight, when I ripped a page out of an L.L. Bean catalogue, picturing a fatherly looking, black-haired guy sitting by a fireplace, and tried to convince myself it was him. I'd kept it under my pillow until, one day, I came home to find clean sheets and no trace of Mr. Bean."When she goes to work at a birthday party for a little girl, Minny becomes emotionally distraught when she sees the father making a birthday cake for his daughter and the silly decorations he's made for the party.
"It was silly and cute, and I started to laugh and then some tiny dam inside of me broke, and a sudden wave of tears threatened to engulf me."
Even after the confrontation with Minny's father, Pat refuses to acknowledge the harm she has done to her daughter. She is in complete denial when confronted by Aunt Joan who tells Pat,
"Minerva's text was a cry for help. What exactly did you tell her about Keanu?"
"Nothing. This isn't about him. Minerva is sick. She has strep."
"It's not strep. She is self-destructing, Pat, she needs --"
"She is fine --"
Pat makes the decision for her daughter about whether or not she should have seen her father. "He deserves to be hated, Joan. He would not have been a good fath--" and when told by her sister that Keanu is not an evil person she becomes furious. In trying to protect her daughter from being hurt by her father, Pat has hurt Minny instead.
Minerva Watson is a plucky girl whose bravery in confronting both her parents and in taking the first steps to heal and to forgive her mother for what she has done make her an appealing character. Throughout the novel, Minny uses music, she plays the ukelele and she writes songs, to help her cope with the stresses of school, her mother, her father having abandoned her, and her relationship with Hayes.
The major disappointment in Get Happy is that the reader never gets to experience the heartbreaking reunion between Minny and her father, Keanu. Instead we are told what will happen - she will meet him for the first time in family therapy- which is much less satisfying. Nevertheless, Amato succeeds in portraying the turmoil children experience when parents are separated through a story filled with wit, humour and many touching moments . She ends Get Happy on a hopeful note with Minny experiencing the beginnings of a first love with Hayes and continuing to focus on her songwriting and playing her ukelele. The message here is that life can go on and be happy in spite of deep hurt and loss.
Those interested in songwriting will find Get Happy has song verses throughout and a collection of Amato's songs at the back of the novel. Mary Amato runs songwriting workshops and has a website specifically geared towards songwriting, Thrum With Me.
Get Happy by Mary Amato
New York: Egmont USA 2014