Quick Hit: The Underside of Joy by Seré Prince Halverson

3 Feb

It’s really very difficult to suppress the urge to apologize at the beginning of every post I write now. Yes, my lapse between posts is ridiculous; yes, I’m super busy; and yes, unfortunately, this blog has to take a backseat. I wish it were different, but, alas it’s not. If you’re still reading my blog, I appreciate the loyalty, but we all just have to accept that the posts are going to be sporadic at best.

That being said, sometimes you stumble across a book that you just feel deserves the attention you’ve been neglecting elsewhere. Seré Prince Halverson’s debut novel, The Underside of Joy, is one of those books.

Halverson’s first book is notable not only because it was rescued from the slush pile where unsolicited manuscripts wait for an assistant to fall in love with them, but also because it IS her first. So many first books are clumsy or have odd pacing or feel forced. This book has none of that.

From the author’s website:

To Ella Beene, happiness means living in the Northern California river town of Elbow with her husband, Joe, and his two young children. For three years, Ella has been the only mother the kids have known. But when Joe drowns off the coast, his ex-wife shows up at his funeral, intent on reclaiming the children. Ella must fight to prove they should remain with her while she struggles to save the family’s market. With wit and determination, she delves beneath the surface of her marriage, finally asking the questions she most fears, the answers jeopardizing everything and everyone she most loves.

Rather than the fairy tale version of step-motherhood that pits good against evil, The Underside of Joy explores a complex relationship between two women who both consider themselves to be the children’s mother. Their conflict uncovers a map of scars — physical and emotional — to their families’ deeply buried tragedies, including Italian internment camps during WWII and postpartum depression and psychosis.

First of all, can I just say how much I adore the name “Ella Beene” for this character??

Secondly, the thing that I loved most about The Underside of Joy (and there were many things to pick from) is that, in a book that is set up as step-mother against mother, there really isn’t a good guy and a bad guy. Even though the book is told entirely from Ella’s perspective, Halverson manages to elicit empathy for both women – not an easy feat when the basic narrative structure invites a stark dichotomy between characters. But Halverson recognizes that life is not that simple, and nor are relationships and children. And because there’s no clear-cut winner or loser in this battle, there seems to be no easy answer or neat ending on the horizon. It is absolutely one of the most compelling conflicts I’ve read in a long time, and I absolutely ached for everyone involved.

Third, I have to admire an author that absolutely sells the story. I mean that in the best way possible, I promise. The time frame in The Underside of Joy initially feels too short for all the things that have happened, to happen. A mother gives birth for the second time, leaves her husband and children, the husband falls in love with someone else and gets married, and they are blissfully happy, all in three short years? I’m not sure why that felt like such a short timeline, but it did. Had Halverson not completely convinced me of why and how that was, not only feasible, but necessary for the story to progress as it does, I would’ve been much less impressed and far more dismissive of this as a typical first novel.

Highly recommended.

P.S. I really want to live in a town called Elbow. Just sayin’.


3 Responses to “Quick Hit: The Underside of Joy by Seré Prince Halverson”

  1. booksnyc February 3, 2012 at 5:56 pm #

    Great review! I am looking forward to reading this book. I admire the skill of an author that can make you feel empathy for characters even when you may not like them.

  2. Heather February 3, 2012 at 6:24 pm #

    Oooo… this sounds really good. Thank you for bringing it to my attention–great review!

  3. sim@chapter1-take1 March 22, 2012 at 1:10 am #

    Hi RaCHEL
    LIBBY -oops I forget her blog name – said I should let you know about this because you usually tweet about indie bookstores on Thursdays so ….this is part of what I posted today, Wed 3/21
    I hope you’ll participate this Friday when I ‘host’ Post a Picture of an Independent Bookstore. To show our support for independent bookstores, I’m looking for fellow bloggers to post a picture on your site of a bookstore with the store’s contact info. I’ll be using Mr. Linky for the very first time ever and I hope you’ll post your URL so we can all sample various bookstores. The bookstore can be your own bookstore, your favorite place to buy books, or maybe it’s a bookstore in a far away city that you’ve always wanted to visit. It can be in Toledo, Toronto or Timbuktu. It’s totally up to you. I just hope you’ll come back and play on Friday!
    Rachel, what do you think?

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