March 31, 2012

The Underside of Joy

The Underside of Joy by Sere Prince Halverson
2012 Penguin Group
Finished on 3/8/12
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)

Overview (from Barnes & Noble)

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.

I first read about The Underside of Joy on Bermudaonion’s blog and became interested when I discovered that the novel takes place in Northern California. I lived in Redway (Humboldt County) in the late sixties and was curious to see if Elbow is actually based on the town of Benbow (which is just south of Redway and Garberville). I couldn’t figure that out, but I did enjoy the authenticity of the setting, as well as the occasional references to San Diego (I, too, worked for a biotech firm in La Jolla) and Encinitas (a small beach community near another town I in which I once lived).

Northern California Coast

I didn’t mark any passage and have since returned the book, but the story grabbed me from the opening pages and I read it over the course of just a few days (while cooped up in a condo on Kauai). The grief shared by a mother and stepmother (albeit, for a husband and not a child) rang very true and there were a few instances in which my heartstrings were gently tugged.

This is one of the rare instances in which I prefer the American cover art over that of the UK’s:

U.K. Cover Art

I discovered this “bio” on Halverson’s website. I love the poetic cadence in her words!

Where I'm From

I am from driftwood, a Mason jar of beach glass collected from our backyard shore on the Puget Sound, and wobbly figure-eights carved on a frozen backwoods pond in Connecticut — shoveled and jump-tested first by my dad.

I am from 25 houses and the inherited determination to have made each one my home and yet...

I am from a persistent longing to finally find home.

I am from Goose Lake suntans, a banged up rowboat and fishing for bluegills, grandma's rhubarb pie and sweet coffee-milk, grandpa's sign in the shower: hang up your wet swimsuits signed the management, a fun pack of cousins, and our painstakingly choreographed shows put on for the tipsy grownups.

I am from three third grades, two second chances, and one first love.

I am from "The only way to make a living by writing is to work in advertising," and "Follow your dreams."

I am from lapsed Catholics. I am from being a Born Again only to be reborn as a Born Only-Once. I am from the acceptance of mystery and trying to remember to find the sacred in this moment.

I am from holding reverent funerals with my little sister as we buried pet moths and butterflies and goldfish under an enormous lilac bush, pressing us with its blooming fragrance and early lessons of impermanence.

I am from Jan and Don, from cocktail parties where I ate the olives soaked in martinis and the maraschino cherries drenched in Manhattans, from boat trips through the San Juans, from aunts and uncles in Seattle who spoiled my sister and me every summer with Spuds Fish 'n Chips, camping, and shopping trips.

I am from singing road songs like I've Got Six-Pence while the red-orange reflections of my parents' cigarettes danced along on the windshield.

I am from moving to a place where I discovered that the Golden Gate Bridge is really red and where I learned to call the beige hills of late summer "golden."

I am from a kitchen timer that told me everything from how long I had to practice the piano to how long my mom had to watch us and the neighborhood kids play Marco Polo in our pool.

I am from gourmet dinners served at 11 p.m. and Carnation Breakfasts blended with ice cream the next morning.

I am from wordplay, inappropriate jokes, and milk-through-the-nose laughter; open arms and long hugs; honesty and admitted mistakes; and the deepest, unshakable certainty that I was always loved and always will be.

I am from old slides that still need to be made into pictures, from packing and unpacking boxes, from revising and finishing and beginning again. And again.

(This was inspired by Lindsey Mead’s beautiful post at A Design So Vast, which was inspired by a poem by George Ella Lyon, which was inspired by a poem by Jo Carson. With all this inspiration, perhaps you'll be inspired to try your own version.)

Final Thoughts: A bit simplistic and predictable, yet an enjoyable beach read. I look forward to her next effort.


  1. Anonymous10:14 AM

    I just finished this one too. My thoughts will be up on Monday. That's interesting, the parallels of where you've lived and what you've done. And you've been a mother and a stepmother too. I thought it was good, especially for a debut novel. I think her website said she's writing something set in the Middle East next.

  2. I'm glad to see you enjoyed this book. You were at the ultimate beach to read it, that's for sure.

  3. If you like Halverson's bio style, then you will probably enjoy The Buddha in the Attic by Otkusa. The whole book (well, half so far) is written just like that. For me, it has its pros and cons. : /

  4. I really like the bio style she chose. Very creative!

  5. This is one that I must read for sure. I've read so many favorable reviews of it that I have to decide for myself!!

  6. Kay - I just read your review and I'm not sure, but I think you may have enjoyed this a bit more than I did. I'll be interested to see what her next novel is about. Thanks for the heads-up about that.

    Kathy - Yes, I was at the ultimate beach, wasn't I? One of the benefits of all that rain was a lot of reading time!

    Joy - Hmmm, I'll have to check out the Buddha in the Attic and see if it's something I'd like to read. Thanks for the info.

    Kelly - I thought so, too. Very creative!

    Staci - And I'll be anxious to hear what you have to say. I didn't love it, but I did enjoy it for the most part. Just not one of those books I'm gushing about, ya know?


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