Anne Barnhill is back as a reviewer for this blog after taking some time off for health problems. I’m happy to say that she’s doing much better. And I’m glad to have her back writing reviews – and to know that she’s working on her next novel.
Anne is the author of the historical novel At the Mercy of the Queen; a memoir At Home in the Land of Oz, about growing up with an autistic sister; and works of short stories and poems.
By Anne Barnhill
THE UNDERSIDE OF JOY. By Sere Prince Halverson. Dutton. 320 pages. $25.95
Sere Prince Halverson’s debut novel, The Underside of Joy, is both a timeless and timely tale of two women who love the same children. Echoing the wisdom of Solomon, Halverson’s novel refuses to use the stereotypes of “good mother” and “wicked stepmother.” She does something much more honest and more real: She carefully dissects the emotions of each woman so that a sympathetic portrait emerges, a portrait more real because it includes the flaws.
The novel begins with Ella Beane, who is so happy with her husband, Joe, and his two children from a previous marriage (she has raised the younger child since infancy after their mother abandoned them) that she cannot imagine a more idyllic existence. But, like most idylls, hers is shattered, when Joe drowns in a freak accident and she is left with two young children to raise on her own.
Or so she believes. However, at the funeral, Paige, Joe’s ex, shows up, ready to become a part of her children’s lives again. Slowly, Ella learns more about what happened to Paige and Joe; the story does not agree with what she’s been told, and she must re-evaluate everything, including her thoughts about her dead husband.
With expert skill, Halverson creates two very different women with very different approaches to life. It would have been easy to make judgments about the mother who leaves her infant, just as it would have been easy to criticize the step-mom for insisting on raising the children of another woman – a woman a woman who has fought her demons and now wants to make up for lost time and lost love.
Here is the section where the women meet for the first time, at Joe’s funeral:
Afterward, I remembered having conversations I couldn’t quite hear and receiving hugs I couldn’t quite feel–as if I’d wrapped myself in plastic after all. The only think I could feel was Annie’s and Zach’s hands slipping into mine, the solidity of their palms, the pressings of their small fingers, as we walked out of the church, as we stood at the grave site on the hill, as we walked down toward the car. And then, Annie’s hand pulled out of mine. She walked up to a striking blond woman I didn’t know standing at the edge of the cemetery. Perhaps one of Joe’s old classmates, I thought. The woman bent down and Annie reached out, lightly touched her shoulders. . . .
“But Annie knows who I am, don’t you, sweet pea?”
Annie nodded without pulling her hand away or looking up. She said, “Mama?”
Right away, the reader feels the pull of the child on both women. Halverson creates immediate tension, and the reader is carried all the way to the resolution, which is original and unpredictable. This is a book with a great deal of heart conveyed with a great deal of skill.