Sere Prince Halverson
Dutton Adult (January 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0525952594 / 9780525952596)
Fiction, 320 pages
Source: Publisher (ARC)
Reason for reading: BlogHer Book Club
I was compensated by BlogHer.com for writing this review and participating in discussions about the book; all opinions are expressed are my own.
Opening lines: “I recently read a study that said that happy people aren’t made. They’re born. Happiness, the report pointed out, is all about genetics–a cheerful gene passed merrily, merrily down from one smiling generation to the next. I know enough about life to understand the old adage that one person can’t make you happy, or that money can’t buy happiness. But I’m not buying this theory that your bliss can only be as deep as your gene pool.”
Book description, via the publisher’s website: 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.
Comments: I’ve been a stepparent for several years, and in my experience, it’s a relationship without all that many hard-and-fast rules; it can vary as much as stepparents and stepchildren do themselves. In the best cases–and I hope that mine is one of them–genuine love and familial bonds develop. However, in many cases, no legal bonds are formed, especially when the children’s other parent is still a major presence in their lives. My legal relationship is with my husband, my stepchildren’s father. There’s a shared-custody agreement between him and their mother. If something should happen to him, I would technically have no relationship with these kids–with whom I’ve lived, traveled, and shared major life events for over half a decade–other than one based on goodwill. That might not be enough.
Sere Prince Halverson’s debut novel, The Underside of Joy, explores a family where it’s nowhere near enough. Having arrived on the scene just a few months after Joe Capozzi’s wife left him and their two small children–one just a baby–Ella Beene falls very easily into their lives, and a near-instant family is born. Three years later, that family is almost as instantly broken when Joe is suddenly swept into the ocean and drowned. Ella’s struggles with her own grief, and that of the daughter and son who feel like her own, are complicated by the unexpected discoveries she’s making about things Joe never told her…especially the ones about the family business that’s barely surviving and the children’s mother who wants to re-establish her relationship with them. Paige Capozzi left her kids while in the depths of major postpartum depression, fearful for their safety with her; she’s recovered now and rebuilding her life, and wants them back in it. The fact that her children have just lost their father and have little recollection of her as their mother isn’t going to deter her from pursuing that goal.
One dead parent and a custody conflict would be enough domestic drama on their own, but Halverson adds in a history of family secrets and Things Not Discussed to raise the stakes. Some of the Things Not Discussed were between Ella and Joe, and as she starts digging into them after his death, she’s forced to recognize her own complacency and willingness not to know. Willful denial plays at least as much of a role in this family’s lives as does deliberate secret-keeping, and things don’t begin to change until Ella pushes herself past her own denial and begins to dig for the truth.
There is a lot of story packed into The Underside of Joy, but little of it feels extraneous. Having said that, there were a few plot points that felt a bit contrived and Lifetime-movie-ish to me, most notably one dramatic episode near the end of the novel; I was invested enough in this family’s story by then that I found it unnecessary. Author Halverson is both a mother and a stepmother, and although she chooses to narrate the story through stepmother Ella’s first-person perspective, she deals with the complex nuances of the relationships here with great empathy and effectiveness, and I was very impressed by that. The Underside of Joy looks at the blended-family relationship under fairly extreme conditions, but within that framework, it explores some broader truths, both factual and emotional.