Why I Picked It: The rarely explored theme of stepmotherhood captured my interest, and I wanted to see how it was tackled in this “not a fairy tale” book by Seré Prince Halverson.
Synopsis: 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.
Quick Take: Reading this book made me feel like I was watching one of our local afternoon soap operas. What drama (and I don’t mean that in a bad way)! I admire how the author was able to deliver the intense emotions with just words – I was already crying within the first quarter of the book. If you think the story is too cheesy for you, it is. But reading this will be totally worth your time; it’s great to once in a while get in touch with your inner drama queen (or king).
Rating: 4/5 stars