‘A Good Happy Girl’ Oozes With Lesbian Kink and Familial Pain

The cover for Marissa Higgins debut novel A Good Happy Girl is an obscured close-up photograph of a woman’s profile as she shoves a large greasy sandwich into her mouth. Even before two scenes late in the novel emerge as possible inspirations, the cover made sense to me. This is a work of textures, of excess, of grease, of desire. It is a portrait of pleasure as punishment and punishment as pleasure, a gluttonous urge for more until both small joys and small discomforts are compounded into the same nauseating grotesquerie.

A Good Happy Girl is about Helen, a lesbian who officially works as an attorney and unofficially runs a semi-popular livestream of her feet — sometimes shot in her office in lieu of her salaried work. Her parents are incarcerated for neglect after leaving her grandmother to starve in her own sick. Helen feels guilt about her parents’ incarceration, guilt about her grandmother who she now often visits in a nursing home, and guilt about her brother who died under mysterious circumstances when they were young.

When the novel begins, Helen is meeting up with a married couple from an app. She wants this couple, Catherine and Katrina, to fulfill her fantasies, to both care for her and torture her. She daydreams about them poisoning her or punching out all her teeth. They know this — to an extent — ready to oblige Helen’s detailed profile and form an unconventional throuple.

Helen’s past is revealed early in the novel. The first-person narration cycles and spirals in obsessive thought patterns of shame and desire with the sources of this thinking sprinkled throughout. When it comes to Helen’s family, there is no big twist. Her brother is dead, her grandmother is dying, and her parents were — and, in some ways, still are — selfish and neglectful. She yearns for more answers and the painful arc of the novel is the realization for Helen and the reader that often life is often mundane in its suffering — even when dramatic enough to make the news.

Reading the book, I thought about my first experiences in therapy. Priding myself on self-awareness, I could easily explain why I felt or behaved a certain way. But I quickly learned that understanding why was only the first step to meaningful change.

Throughout A Good Happy Girl it’s obvious why Helen acts the way she does and why she wants the things she wants. She explicitly repeats both again and again. “I wanted more tests, to play sick as long as I needed. Too, I wanted their effort after effort to heal me, their little damsel,” she says at one point about the wives. The questions become whether she will get what she wants and whether these desires are serving her.

Depending on your familiarity with and affinity for certain BDSM dynamics, you’re likely to find Helen and the book either disgusting or erotic — and, very likely, both. But whether you share Helen’s desires or judge them, it’s evident that she seeks them out in ways that are fraught. Sometimes she is playing a game with the wives or with her flirty coworker — an exchange of power that interests all involved. Other times, it feels like the wrong kind of punishment; a misplaced sabotage of her life and the lives of those who care about her.

Some of the most powerful scenes in the novel are between Helen and her grandmother. Here the dynamics we’ve witnessed with Helen are swapped. She is not helpless, but helpful. Her guilt still pulses, her thoughts still violent, and yet her actions are loving and tender. There is an added drama born from her grandma’s senility. Often, Helen is bringing outfits for a doll her grandma has grown attached to, ignoring as her grandma calls her by the wrong name. But sometimes her grandma is alert, aware of the past. “Helen, she said, you really need a lot of help.” There’s still no sentimentality to these moments. The book continues in Helen’s usual headspace: “I wondered if my face had begun to bleed. My nose hanging from my nasal cavity. My eyes out of my sockets.”

Helen doesn’t take good care of herself, and she self-flagellates for not taking better care of her careless parents. But she does take care of her grandma. Sometimes, she lets the wives take care of her.

Amid its sticky world of melancholy, A Good Happy Girl asks universal questions: What do we owe each other? What do we owe people who have hurt us and hurt others? What do we owe ourselves?

The challenge for Helen — and the reader — is to accept the multitude of answers to each question. It’s hard to be good when that word has so many definitions. It’s hard to be happy when no one knows how to be good.

You can buy A Good Happy Girl here.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 516 articles for us.

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