By Jennifer Sargent
I recently read The Underside of Joy by Sere Prince Halverson, which begins when Ella, married to Joe for just three short years, learns that he drowned early one morning while taking photographs from an oceanside cliff. She is left with his two very young children that she has been raising as her own. Ella had been told that their birth mother, Paige, abandoned the family shortly before she herself met Joe, with no intention of ever returning. But when Paige shows up at Joe’s funeral, Ella soon learns that the real story is much more complex.
As a mother myself, the story of what happens to Ella and her young children as they deal with the death of their father and its aftermath was moving, thought provoking, and at times heartbreaking. I mourned with Ella, worried about her and the kids, and understood the agonizing decisions she had to make as the story unfolded. I also came to understand Paige as the birth mother and the struggles that brought her to where she was. I was touched by the exploration of the complexities and sacrifices of motherhood, the balance between the desires of the mothers and the needs of the children, certainly something that every mother can understand.
I also enjoyed this book as someone who has studied psychology for many years. I am interested in why people do the things they do, especially when those things don’t seem to make sense on the surface. Halverson did an admirable job slowly unveiling the whys behind Paige’s seemingly heartless actions, behind the mess Joe made of his business, behind Joe’s family’s painful sadness, behind Ella’s own mother’s wall of stoicism. There is always a reason.
Lastly, I read this book as someone who is, quite frankly, a book snob. I was an English major in college, and I am a tough critic when it comes to literature. I had mixed feelings about this book from a literary point of view. I did greatly enjoy Halverson’s descriptions of the lush vegetation and the gorgeous food of Northern California wine country, her depiction of the close-knit intimacy of small-town life, and her use of true-life historical details that depict a community whose elders were scarred by World War II internment camps, all of which provide a rich backdrop to her story, the terroir steeped into all the characters, their actions, the whys and the hows.
Unfortunately, I found much of the prose to be bit flat and cliché at times, some of the plot devices a little too convenient and predictable, and a lot of the symbolism a little heavy handed. I often wished I could take a red pen and mark it up for a re-edit. But take what I say about this book’s literary merits with a grain of salt; the story is a worthwhile read, a journey of two mothers dealing with loss, secrets, and shame, a story that deepened my appreciation for my own children (and my husband), reminding me that it can all be taken away in a moment, and that life, like a fine wine, as it were, is always much more complex than you may expect.