“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.”
Thoughts: What is one’s definition of a mother? Does the title automatically fall to a woman who gives birth, only to give the baby up for adoption immediately? Is it a title that is earned through the tender nurturing and loving of a child? Can one forfeit the title under certain circumstances? Can one earn back the right to be a mother? All these questions and more face Ella Beene in Sere Prince Halverson’s The Underside of Joy.
As much as I wanted to embrace The Underside of Joy wholeheartedly and shout from the rooftops about what a wonderful novel it is, I just cannot do so. My problems with the novel revolve around Paige. I do not believe that birth mothers should be given more rights than adoptive mothers, and it never ceases to infuriate me when judges continually forget the child’s best interest in custody disputes. Like Ella, I wanted to forgive Paige and give her the benefit of the doubt, but then she goes and continues to put her own needs in front of those of her children’s. Her actions in court, on the phone, in front of the kids, and in general upset me so much that I wanted to throw the book across the room. While one could argue that this emotional response is a sign of an extremely well-written book, and it is, my overall enjoyment of the novel will forever be tainted by my abhorrence of Paige’s actions in the name of motherhood.
No matter one’s opinion of Paige or of Joe for keeping secrets, any reader will marvel at Halverson’s beautiful writing. The scents and scenery of Northern California come alive with her words. Ella’s pain is so perfectly rendered that readers will find themselves sobbing uncontrollably at random moments or, as in my case, forced to stop reading because of an inability to handle the intensity of Ella’s, and subsequently their own, roiling feelings. It is an emotional juggernaut of a novel that will make even the most hard-hearted of readers wilt until the feelings of pain, loss and confusion while at the same time make readers start planning trips to Sonoma to find their own Elbow, California.
The Underside of Joy is a magnificent ode to motherhood – the endless sacrifice, the unconditional love that makes even the worst day better, the doubts, the fears, the pain, the joy. Ella is a formidable heroine, refusing to buckle under three of the most difficult situations one will ever face. Ms. Halverson’s writing is so amazing that Ella’s pain becomes the reader’s pain, her celebrations become the reader’s joys. Except for my personal issues with Paige, her actions, and the court system in general, The Underside of Joy truly does live up to the hype as one of the best books of the year.
Acknowledgements: Thank you to the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association trade show for my review copy!