Published by Dutton on January 12, 2012
Before finishing the first page, the reader learns that The Underside of Joy will be about a life-changing event. Something will happen to cause the narrator to learn that her three years of “doing backflips in the deep end of happiness” was transitory, that “the most genuine happiness cannot be so pure, so deep, or so blind.” When the blissful life she has created with her husband and his two children comes to an abrupt end with her husband’s death -- a part of “life’s never-ending track of goodbyes” -- Ella must pick up the pieces. Her husband has left behind a debt-ridden business and a meager insurance policy. That’s bad enough, but then an unexpected piece appears: Paige, the children’s biological mother, returns from her self-imposed exile.
Will Ella be able to save the family store? More importantly, will she be able to keep her remaining family intact in light of Paige’s desire to resume her role as the children’s mother? Ella concocts a plan that might do both, but will it succeed?
This is the kind of plotline that rarely appeals to me because it so easily descends into mawkish melodrama. Unimaginative authors are often tempted to manipulate readers with the cheap, ready-made sentiment of a trashy movie on the Lifetime network. Seré Prince Halverson surprised me with her deft handling of this family drama. On a few occasions Halverson came very close to going over-the-top, but I never felt that the main storyline was contrived or unrealistic. Even the ending, which is considerably neater than true life usually manages to be, is comfortably plausible.
It’s easy (and too common) to paint an absentee parent as an evil threat to her children when she suddenly reappears in their lives, but life is rarely that simple. Halverson deserves credit for her nuanced depiction of a difficult domestic situation: Paige may not be quite as bad as she first appears and, under pressure, Ella may not be the supermom she once believed herself to be. The story works its way toward an ethical dilemma, one that forces Ella to make a difficult choice between her self-interest and what might be in the best interest of her children. Ella’s contemplation of that choice leads to understandable conflict with Joe’s family and a deeper understanding of Paige. It’s the sort of choice that will inevitably cause a reader to ask: What would I do? I’m not sure that any answer is the “right” answer; that’s what makes the problem so interesting.
To some extent, The Underside of Joy is about the value of honesty, of living without the comfortable concealment of facades. But honesty can backfire. Is there such a thing as being too honest? Again, Halverson avoids simplistic answers to life’s difficult questions.
Two weaknesses mar this otherwise fine novel. One is a subplot involving Ella’s father (who died while she was young under circumstances that made Ella blame herself for his death). The other is a relatively minor plot point involving Paige’s childhood. Those are the only aspects of this domestic drama that seem artificial. The first is meant to illustrate the lesson that neither Ella’s dead father nor her dead husband were perfect, and that “perfection is a weight none of us can bear,” but the way it unfolds is too improbable to ring true. The second is meant to humanize Paige but its introduction interrupts and distracts from a moment of drama that feels much more genuine.
A much stronger plot thread involves Joe’s grandfather, an Italian-American who was confined to an American internment camp during World War II for the crime of being Italian. That loyal Americans were treated as “the enemy” because of their birthplaces is shameful, although that tendency continues even in the current century. Halverson explores the issue with sensitivity and compassion.
Halverson writes with refined rawness, manufacturing prose that is elegant yet powerful. Her loving descriptions of nature make forests and rivers come alive, as do her renditions of the novel’s characters. The quality of the writing kept me turning the pages even in moments when I thought the plot was becoming a bit too sappy. The Underside of Joy reads like the work of an experienced novelist, not a first timer. I look forward to her next effort.