The Underside of Joy

The Underside of Joy

Book - 2012
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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.

Publisher: New York : Dutton, c2012.
ISBN: 9780525952596
Characteristics: 307 p. ;,24 cm.


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Sep 10, 2016

As a debut novel, this is fantastic. It's a gut punch of emotions that somehow never comes across as overwrought or unbelievable. It touches on the Italian Internment camps in the U.S. during WWII (which I didn't realize had happened, and is another mark in the tragedy that is 'a country priding itself on freedom and allowing fear to win'). It touches on the relationships we have with family, both blood relations and heart relations, and how those can lift us up and hurt us- even at the same time. It touches on regret, love, and most of all, parenthood.

If this sounds like a powerful book, it is. If this sounds like a depressing book, it is. Not hopeless, but it will give you the feels (especially if you have ever been a parent, step-parent, or foster parent, which I was for a time). Every character in here is realistic. No one is 'the bad guy', and actions with terrible consequences come from an (understandable) place of fear.

But there's also hope, new beginnings, compromise, and the transformative power of accepting your fear instead of letting it dictate your actions. And that kept it from being too sorrowful or stressful a read.

Overall, I recommend it for fans of women's fiction (even though I absolutely hate that term- it implies women are defined by emotional reads and men don't want emotional reads), especially book clubs as there's a lot to discuss. I will definitely be picking up any future books by this author (whether or not they're set along the Russian River in northern California, which is a spot I love).

madison382 Dec 01, 2014

Really enjoyed this book, even though I cried rivers of tears.

elisabeth321 Sep 23, 2014

Husband dies in ocean - two young step children - co parenting with step mother

ok - not great

Oct 24, 2012

Great messages about love, loss, hanging in, and compromise.

ChristchurchLib Oct 15, 2012

Three years ago, a young woman named Ella Beene stopped off in a northern California town, fell in love, and never left. For the past three years, she's been happily married to Joe Capozzi and raising his kids from an earlier marriage. But her joyful life is torn to pieces when Joe dies in a drowning accident - not only does she learn that the small family business is nearing bankruptcy, but Joe's first wife, Paige, has appeared, demanding custody of the kids Ella loves. With beautifully depicted characters (you'll sympathise with everyone, including Paige), this debut is a "pitch perfect" (Publishers Weekly) examination of what it means to make a family.

October 2012 Next Reads newsletter

branch_reviews May 11, 2012

For three wonderful years, Ella Beene has been living an idyllic life as wife to her dream man, Joe, and adoring stepmom to his children, six-year-old Annie, and three-year-old Zach. The family had been abandoned by Joe’s ex-wife Paige when Zach was just an infant, and she signed over full custody to Joe. But with one rogue wave in the northern California ocean, Ella’s perfect life shatters. As Paige comes back into the children’s lives, and Joe’s secrets slowly surface, Ella must face the fact her life wasn’t perfect after all. In her debut novel, Halverson avoids stereotypes and weaves a compelling story of two women who both want the best for the two children they each consider their own. Her love for the redwood forests, sprawling vineyards and small-town communities shines throughout. A journey of love, joy, family, grief, anger, despair and hope.
Reviewed by DC

May 08, 2012

Really enjoyed this, a good tear jerker, had to stay in bed reading it! Well written debut novel.

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