Thursday, January 12, 2012

Julie's Review: The Underside of Joy

Summary: Set against the backdrop of Redwood forests and shimmering vineyards, Seré Prince Halverson's compelling debut tells the story of two women, bound by an unspeakable loss, who each claims to be the mother of the same two children. To Ella Beene, happiness means living in the northern California river town of Elbow with her husband, Joe, and his two young children. Yet one summer day Joe breaks his own rule-never turn your back on the ocean-and a sleeper wave strikes him down, drowning not only the man but his many secrets. For three years, Ella has been the only mother the kids have known and has believed that their biological mother, Paige, abandoned them. But when Paige shows up at the funeral, intent on reclaiming the children, Ella soon realizes there may be more to Paige and Joe's story. "Ella's the best thing that's happened to this family," say her close-knit Italian-American in-laws, for generations the proprietors of a local market. But their devotion quickly falters when the custody fight between mother and stepmother urgently and powerfully collides with Ella's quest for truth. The Underside of Joy is not a fairy-tale version of stepmotherhood pitting good Ella against evil Paige, but an exploration of the complex relationship of two mothers. Their conflict uncovers a map of scars-both physical and emotional-to the families' deeply buried tragedies, including Italian internment camps during World War II and postpartum psychosis. Weaving a rich fictional tapestry abundantly alive with the glorious natural beauty of the novel's setting, Halverson is a captivating guide through the flora and fauna of human emotion-grief and anger, shame and forgiveness, happiness and its shadow complement . . . the underside of joy. ~amazon.com

Review: I read about The Underside of Joy months ago and knew I had to have it, so I was thrilled when it showed up at my door (see note below). This book is not an easy read when it comes to emotions but the way that Ms. Halverson writes the novel is compelling and rich with beauty, both of nature and of the strength of women. To say that Ella is likable is an understatement. From the first words of the novel, I felt a kinship with her that would tether me to her throughout the novel. She quickly stepped into the role of mommy when she met Joe 3 years prior and while asking some questions about his first wife; she never really pressed for details. Ella knew she was gone and had left the children and Joe never looking back. After Joe dies suddenly, Paige shows up demanding to be a part of Annie and Zach's lives. A right some would say, she gave up when she walked out the door and signed over all parental rights to Joe. For me, I went back and forth on Paige's involvement with the kids. It's not cut and dry here as it never is in real life.

Not only is Ella dealing with the resurgence of Paige into her and the children's lives but she also discovers that the family store was in financial ruins. It's amazing that Ella remains as strong as she does during this time. Did she have weak moments? Absolutely. I thought she should have had more. There is one scene where she yells at the kids and remarks later that she's never yelled at them before?! What?! Really?!

There are two pivotal moments in the novel for me and I won't go into specifics but with one I had to restrain myself from screaming "NO!!!" and the other one I held my breath for the outcome. In the end Ella puts her children and their needs first instead of hers. Like Ella, I wonder how things would be different if Joe had lived. Then again, that's not the story that was to be told.

I never grew to really like Paige but I did understand her better in the end. Maybe that's all we as the reader and perhaps Ella are supposed to do.

What Ms. Halverson does in this book is bring you on an emotional roller coaster. She examines what it means to be a mother, a wife, a family member and an individual. We are all shaped by our personal history, family history and the expectations of family. What we do with all of that makes us who we are. Sometimes one is sacrificed for the good of the others.

Ms. Halverson has a great love for the Redwoods in Northern California because it permeates throughout the novel. Frankly, I want to pack up everything and move to Elbow, CA. Ok, maybe visit. This area is just as much a character as the people in the novel. It makes them who they are and it seeps from their pores and souls.

There are so many layers to this novel that it is truly hard to cover in a review without giving too much of the novel away. It is also hard to write a review when you truly loved the book and when you are emotionally attached to it, as I became.

Know this, if you are looking for a book about family, love, loss, despair, redemption and joy, then you don't need to look any further than The Underside of Joy.

Final Take: 5/5

Note: This is the 2nd book I've won from Dutton Books "Monday Giveaways" on Twitter and this is the 2nd time it's been an outstanding novel. The other book was The Keeper of Lost Causes.



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2 comments :

A Novel Review- Laura Kay January 12, 2012 at 11:25 AM  

fantastic review! I can't wait to read!

Amy January 16, 2012 at 1:57 PM  

Yes this is one amazing review. I'm on page 100 and can't put it down

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