27 July 2012

The Underside of Joy by Sere Prince Halverson

Description: "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."

Set in the richly described small town of Elbow, California, this novel tracks a family through grief and joy, exploring the complex bonds of family and the true meaning of motherhood. Halverson's prose is descriptive and emotionally charged, but never overly dramatic or forced. Her characters are real people with real faults and feelings, and she writes them in such a way that you feel each moment, good and bad, alongside them.

I strongly felt the author's desire to show empathy both for Paige and for Ella, though the story is told from Ella's perspective. As the two women navigate the very rocky and always dirty minefield of child custody following the loss of Ella's husband Joe, the reader feels for both women - there is nothing easy or obvious in that minefield.

The lush natural setting of vineyards and river imbue this novel with a warm and homey atmosphere, the ideal setting for a family story. I highly recommend this novel, it will make you question your ideas on family, on love and on grief - once I started reading I couldn't put it down, though I was dreading what might happen next. I give The Underside of Joy five stars.

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