Review: The Underside of Joy

Why I picked it:  I discovered this book on ShelleyRae's blog, Book'd Out early February, signed up for a giveaway... and won!

These two sentences from ShelleyRae's review had me hooked: Halverson touches upon some important issues in this novel including postnatal depression, infertility, child custody and the role of step mothers. In a broader sense the themes ask the reader to consider if honesty is always best, what are the limits of love and asks how we define a family.

Synopsis: Losing a husband is virtually unbearable. Losing your children to the birth mother who abandoned them, whilst you are still grieving, is one heartbreak too far. It must not be allowed to happen … Ella counts as her blessings her wonderful husband, two animated kids and an extended family who regard her as one of their own.

Yet when her soul mate Joe tragically drowns, her life is turned upside down without warning, and she finds that the luck, which she had thought would last forever, has run out. When Joe’s beautiful ex-wife, who deserted their children three years earlier, arrives at the funeral, Ella fears the worst. And she may well be right to. Ella discovers she must struggle with her own grief, while battling to remain with the children and the life which she loves. Questioning her own role as a mother, and trying to do what is right, all she is sure of is that she needs her family to make it through each day. Yet when pushed to the limits of love, Ella must decide whether she is, after all, the best mother for her children.

Type: Fiction

Quick Take: As mentioned at the top of this post, I was interested to explore the definition of family and the limits of love. I read this novel in two/three days, which is fast for me, and was invested in the story.  I wanted to know if Ella's life would return to it's peaceful, ideal existence but knew this wasn't possible. 

After answering the questions below, I think this would make for a great book club selection.  There's a lot to discuss.

I loved this book.  Read it!

When I find a reader's guide, I like to include three questions (exploring books, the themes, characters, etc... without spoilers). Often I appreciate a book more after answering them:

What were your first impressions of Paige? How did they change as the story progressed? Paige is the children's birth mother, who suffers from postnatal depression.  The reader is invested in Ella's story (the step mom) when Paige enters the novel so I didn't want to like Paige.   She came across as aggressive with her approach yet I understood her motive. It isn't until later in the book that the reader feels compassion for her decisions.

By the end of the novel, I came to appreciate Paige and even began to like her.

How is “drowning” used as a significant theme in the novel, both literally and figuratively? The author does a wonderful job letting the reader become attached to a community and a family.  When the tragedy of Joe's sudden death happens you feel for all the characters in the novel.  Ella is drowning figuratively knowing that Joe isn't coming back.  Dealing with the the aftermath and the parts of his story that she discovers after he dies is more than overwhelming at times.  The children are drowning to make Ella and Paige happy but can they decide between Ella and Paige and find balance?  This is heartbreaking to read.  Paige is drowning in guilt, for walking away from her family, for what she's missed, for the relationship Ella and Joe had.

In what ways are Ella and Paige different? In what ways are they the same? If you were Annie or Zach, who would you want to live with? This is a tough question.  Mother v Step Mother or Mother v Father... it's very hard for a child to feel this pull.  The guilt with making a decision and hurting the other parent.  I was rooting for the women to decide to live close enough that the children could see both parents BUT I if I was in Paige's situation I might not want to share them.   I can't explore this here without giving up bits of the story... you will have to trust me.

Rating: 4 stars
Source: Personal Copy (I won this one)