Fiction, Women’s Fiction
January 12th, 2012
Won from Goodreads, in 2012
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 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 natural beauty of the novel’s setting, Halverson is a captivating guide through the flora and fauna of human emotions.
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).