THE UNDERSIDE OF JOY by Seré Prince Halverson


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A poignant debut about mothers, secrets and sacrifices.

When Ella is suddenly widowed (Joe has drowned in a freak accident) she reacts as any young woman would—disbelief mixed with a frantic need to keep things normal for their two small children. But on the tail of grief comes disaster: she didn’t know their Italian grocery is nearing bankruptcy and the children’s mother has come to reclaim them. Three years ago Ella stopped in a small Northern California town, met Joe and never left. Joe’s wife Paige had abandoned Joe and the children a few months prior to Ella’s arrival and sent a few letters begging him to move on. Joe and Ella married, and she became mother to infant Zach and toddler Annie. Now Joe is dead and Paige is back demanding her children. The store that Joe inherited from his grandfather (an Italian-American who was interned during World War II) is foundering, so to save the store, and in turn secure custody of the children, Ella decides to transform the grocery into a gourmet deli, serving the tourists who flock to Sonoma. In custody mediation it seems Ella will win (judges take a poor view on disappearing mothers), though Paige insists she has been writing and trying to see the children for years. When custody has almost been finalized in Ella’s favor, she finds the stack of Paige’s letters, hidden by Joe. The letters tell a different story: of Paige suffering from postpartum depression, of her dismissed fears that she might hurt the children, of running away to get help and hospitalization and, finally, of Paige writing to come back to her marriage and children and finding she has already been replaced. History must be revised for both of these women: Who are they to each other now? What kind of a husband did they have in Joe?

Halverson avoids sentimentality, aiming for higher ground in this lucid and graceful examination of the dangers and blessings of familial bonds.

Pub Date: Jan. 17th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-525-95259-6
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Dutton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2012


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