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The Underside of Joy By: Seré Prince Halverson

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

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 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.

Goodreads Summary

One aspect of the story that interested me, because I’m part Italian, was the internment of Italian Americans during WWII.  Joe’s paternal and maternal grandfathers…and their families experienced the fear and shame that came with being dragged away from their homes to camps where they were held because they came to America from an Axis power.  When my own great-grandparents moved into a nice neighborhood in the 1920s; many of the neighbors said, “There goes the neighborhood.”  It’s great that Halverson included that prejudiced bit of history in her story.  She is also a master of imagery; I felt that I could see the woods, the river, the picnic places, and the renovations at the store.  She made me cringe at the suburban neighborhood with no grass and one lone birch tree in the yard.

Ella’s struggle to find the truth - and to accept it - became a part of me as I read the book.  The many secrets kept from her, by the husband she thought she knew so lovingly and perfectly, were frightening.  It was hard to read how much Ella had to struggle emotionally and financially.  No wonder she headed to the hospital, thinking that she was having a heart attack.  It’s alarming but true that doctors automatically hand out anti-depressants, sleeping pills, and anti-psychotic medicines.  Then, as in this situation, courts and the public will cite the drug use as a proof for your instability.  Paige, who had actually been unstable herself, tries to discredit Ella’s custody of Joe’s children using that argument. This biological mother/stepmother situation seemed almost overly dramatic; however since I have heard of so many unpleasant custody situations, the circumstances are believable and heart-breaking.

As Halverson writes “the most genuine happiness cannot be so pure, so deep, or so blind”.  I am probably being dramatic myself, but I thought I found symbolic references to the title: the underside of the desk and the underside of the mattress.  These are places of secrecy and/or heartfelt desires that didn’t come true.  Often, joy glides topside over this pain, loss, and unhappiness – and triumphs in spite of it.  Even though it was a difficult decision, I cheered that Ella decides to bring the secrets out. She chooses honesty in the custody battle, in her financial troubles, and in her own relationship with her mom and deceased dad.

4/5 Stars

*Reviewed by Colleen*

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