I picked up Douglas Kennedy’s romantic novel, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” a few weeks ago with no idea at all what I was getting into. The cover of the heavy paperback (572 pages) intrigued me. A woman dressed in black, who could be Cate Blanchett in the last moments of the Titanic, faces away from us, balanced on a water-soaked plank in what appears to be a woodland river.

Where is she going? What might she tell us? Is she balanced unhappily at the edge of desperation and despair? Or is she, as the title suggests, embarked on “The Pursuit of Happiness”? Even more important, what does author plan to tell us? The book, published to positive reviews in England nine years ago, appears here this month. With 10 novels to his credit, homes in Maine, Paris and London and years of experience in writing about romance, Kennedy should have a rich adventure in store.

And he does.

This is a story primarily of two women. But a single man — Jack Malone — stands at the center of it. For Sara Smythe, fresh out of Bryn Mawr College, Malone’s place in her world is clear. From the night at the end of World War II when she meets him at her brother’s apartment in Manhattan, he is the love of her life. Commitment envelopes her, and she and Jack plan a life together when he returns from a nine-month overseas assignment for the Army’s newspaper, Stars and Stripes.

A talented writer herself, Smythe digs into her job at Life magazine, convinced her lover will soon return and the happiness she’s pursued will be hers.

As you might guess, with a 500-page book in your hand, that’s not the way things are going to work out.

Instead of months of daily letters, Sara hears no more from Jack for seven months. And then only an enigmatic letter arrives, saying, “I’m sorry, Jack.”

Sara has no idea what has happened, and it will take her years to find out — years that will brutally reshape her life and inject her into the life of a woman she has yet to meet. Without giving away details that are better discovered by readers, just let me say fate has changed the lives of everyone involved. And fate is not done yet.

With flair and a brisk sense of pace, Kennedy moves his story along, through the immediate post-war years into the murky McCarthy era, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy used fear of communism to incinerate careers, ruin lives and undermine people wondering where the bright hope of America had gone to hide.

At one point, Sara leaves Manhattan to await the birth of a child in privacy. She chooses Brunswick, Maine. And author Kennedy’s fondness for Maine and its people becomes immediately apparent. “There were never sly questions about what I was doing in Brunswick, or whether I had a husband, or how I was supporting myself,” he has Sara tell us. “As I came to discover, this lack of obtrusive curiosity was the Maine way. People respected your privacy because they wanted you to respect theirs.

“More tellingly, in true Maine style, the state’s unspoken social code was a fiercely independent one: your business is your own damn business, not mine. Even if they were interested in your back story, they forced themselves to appear disinterested — out of fear of being labeled meddlesome, or the village gossip. Maine was probably one of the few places in America where taciturnity and reserve were considered civic virtues.”

And virtues they remain.

“The Pursuit of Happiness” shares one complex personal story about a man and two women at a time of turmoil and readjustment all around. It is a compelling story, well worth reading, of America and Americans coming of age. 

Nancy Grape writes book reviews for the Maine Sunday Telegram.