"The Underside of Joy" (Dutton), by Sere Prince Halverson: If joy was a pool, there was a time when Ella Beene "did backflips in the deep end of happiness." And then suddenly, too soon, it was as if she hit her head on the diving board and everything came to a crashing end.
Ella's second husband drowns, leaving her with two small stepchildren and a nearly bankrupt business. She had no idea their financial situation was so dire. Worse, her husband had given her no hint that his first wife, who had abandoned the family years earlier, had been seeking custody of their children.
Sere Prince Halverson's debut novel looks at the underside of joy — the secrets couples keep to protect each other and themselves.
Her main character, Ella, is fleeing from the wreckage of a first marriage destroyed by the quiet agony of infertility when she sees her future husband, Joe, struggling with an infant and a toddler. She offers a hand, he accepts, and after a whirlwind courtship, she's moved into his home and taken over as mother to his children. She's happy not to ask too many questions. His first wife is gone. The business is his business. End of story.
Looking back, Ella reflects, "The most genuine happiness" cannot be "so blind."
Halverson has created in Ella a character who is naive and strong, believable in her grief, and realistically shattered when she does the right thing, only to have it cost her more. There is a heart-stopping, mind-altering pain that comes with losing someone suddenly and a slow return to sanity afterward. Halverson captures this perfectly as Ella struggles to keep herself, the family business and her family together.
She also offers a sharp look at relationships among women as Ella struggles to find some common ground with Paige, Joe's first wife. Both are jealous and resentful — Ella envies Paige's beauty, only to find Paige resents the seemingly greater love Joe bore her. And yet, the women are pulled together by their love for Joe's children.
A second tragedy unites them, leading to a conclusion that is satisfying and realistic. In an era when more and more children have two moms (or two dads), the novel offers an apolitical take on why two parents are better than one, regardless of gender.
"The Underside of Joy" covers the transforming experiences of most of our lives — marriage, parenthood and death — with maturity, understanding and grace. Anyone who has known love, loss, regret and forgiveness can identify with Ella and her transformation, and with subplots about sibling rivalry, the local food movement and the persecution of Italian immigrants during World War II, the book offers a lot to think about. I suspect it will be a book club favorite.