Thursday, January 19, 2012

Book Review: The Underside of Joy

Sere Prince Halverson's novel The Underside of Joy reinvents the Solomon story for our modern times. Two women each claim to be the mother to two young children; of course, only one of them is the biological mother, and no one disputes that Paige carried, gave birth to, and briefly mothered the children. But then she left.

In steps Ella, the other woman, our protagonist, and a loving stepmother who gets the glowing recommendation of an entire town and her husband's extended family as the one who swooped in and filled the void left by the neglectful Paige. When the husband dies suddenly in a tragic accident, though, both worlds are turned upside down.

Solomon's wisdom resurfaces: the real mother is the one who puts the children's best interests first. But what does that mean?

Early in the novel, I became leery of these characters. Told through Ella's perspective, it seemed that both women were going to become simple tropes: Paige as wicked witch, Ella as perfect princess. But I was pleasantly surprised by the complexity of the characterizations as the novel went on. Just as in real life, no one plays a simple part. Ella surprises herself by questioning her abilities and finding the humanity in Paige. There are no easy answers.

The book was a quick, enjoyable read that was easy to follow. The dialogue and in-the-moment action are considerably more skillfully written than the exposition. Halverson is at her best when she trusts her readers to pick up the subtleties of her characters, but there are times when she was too careful to lay it all out in stilted, cumbersome exposition.

Though the crisis resolves a little too quickly and neatly for my tastes, the book is thematically rich and provides genuine insight into realistic characters.  I'm excited to see the conversations on the BlogHer Book Club about this piece, as I think there are several contemporary issues in motherhood, femininity, family, and identity to pull from it.

Compensation Disclosure: I was compensated by BlogHer for this review and received a copy of the book. Of course, all opinions and ideas are my own. 

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