It’s been a year since 31-year-old Helen Carpenter divorced, and she’s doing, well. She’s doing. She has a job as a first-grade teacher and a rescue dog she completely adores, even though she’s a bit of a growly, ankle-biting monster who only chills out when she’s dozing in Helen’s bed. But Helen’s good at rolling with the punches. She and her brother Duncan were raised by their grandmother after their mom dropped them off and never came back. While Duncan tends to be unreliable and a bit of a screw-up, he’s got a good heart. It’s Duncan who talks her into signing up for an outdoor survival course in Wyoming, where she’ll spend three weeks in the remote mountain wilderness in an effort to find her center after all the disorienting changes she’s experienced.

Duncan volunteers to watch Helen’s problem-dog, but surprise, surprise! When Helen swings by the night before her departure to drop the dog off, she finds a raging party going on and no Duncan to be found. That’s when she runs into Jake, Duncan’s roommate and best friend since high school. Jake admits he’s a bit preoccupied in one of the bedrooms. But as Helen sighs and heads for the door, he casually thanks her for offering to give him a ride in the morning. Didn’t she know? Jake’s going on the same hiking trip she is! Record scratch. It seems Duncan hasn’t just signed her up for a wilderness adventure, but for a road trip with a younger guy she only remembers as her brother’s annoying best friend!

Before she knows it, Helen’s on the road with Jake, discovering she may have judged him a little harshly. Not only does he cut the trip time in half with his savvy navigation skills, but he’s a warm, friendly Harvard graduate with a love for whales and the great outdoors. He’s also just been accepted to a prestigious med school, but he’s not going — and won’t say why. By the time they make their first stop at Helen’s grandmother’s house in Illinois, the chemistry is a-brewin’.

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Happiness for Beginners hits so many sweet spots with the natural, lively chemistry between Helen and Jake. Can you imagine a more romantic date than dinner in a tree house? How about following it up with a late-night, high-stakes game of Scrabble? Call me a nerd, but this is where the book got really dreamy for me. And it gets better. The slow build of romantic tension between Jake and Helen as they get back on the road is totally delicious. Nothing happens too fast — even when they spend the next night together in a hotel, a phone call from her recovering alcoholic ex-husband gets in the way of their growing intimacy. There’s even a good blow-up fight in which Helen turns on Jake and tells him that when they get to the Wyoming mountains, he should pretend she doesn’t exist. Poor Jake — he’s had a crush on her since he first met her!

Helen’s journey really picks up when they finally reach Wyoming and she realizes that everyone in the group is a college student! As a recent graduate, Jake is the oldest one after her. Helen can’t help feeling awkward as the only 32-year-old divorcee looking to find herself, and it doesn’t help that she’s the weakest hiker in the group. Though she thought she was in great shape, trekking through the Wyoming mountains is a lot different from running miles in Boston. Good thing Jake is an expert outdoorsman, and all too eager to lend a hand!

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Happiness for Beginners author Katherine Center.

What stood out about Happiness for Beginners was the genuineness of the journey. This isn’t a cut-and-dry happy romance. While Jake is a total hunk, it’s clear that Helen’s happiness is her own accomplishment, the result of taking risks and enduring a major challenge even when all of her weaknesses were on full display. Helen’s struggles in the wilderness are believable and always exhilarating, with plenty of cool details about outdoor survival to hold your interest through the story. Tree houses, road trips, Scrabble, dreamy animal-lovers, and the Wyoming wilderness. What more could a reader ask for? Happiness for Beginners is truly a delightful read.

Katherine Center is a clever writer whose exuberant style easily holds your interest and keeps you on your toes. We had so much with this novel! We’ll definitely be checking out her other novels about love and family, The Bright Side of Disaster, Everyone Is Beautiful, Get Lucky, and The Lost Husband. You can read more about Katherine Center and her books on her website.

Join Spa Week’s Book Club! Last week we reviewed French Coast by Anita Hughes. Next week we’ll review Murder at Honeychurch Hall by Hanna Dennison. Get reading and stay tuned!

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