Ella Bean is no fairy tale wicked stepmother. She loves her husband Joe and she loves his children, Annie and Zach, as if they are her own. In fact, while Annie remembers her birth mother, Paige, Ella is the only mother Zach has ever known. But one day, Ella’s idyllic world is shattered when her husband drowns in a tragic accident, taking with him secrets she didn’t know he was keeping. Now, Paige wants Annie and Zach back in her life, and Ella begins to realize that she may not know the truth of Paige and Joe’s past. What unfolds in The Underside of Joy is both an uplifting and heartbreaking story of two women who believe themselves to be the best mother for Annie and Zach.
Sere Prince Halverson really weaves quite a story here. In a classic fairy tale, this would be a story of good versus evil. Instead, we get something much more complicated. Perhaps no true heroine, perhaps no real malice. What we learn is that everyone has secrets. The stories behind these secrets shape who we are and how we relate to the people in our lives. Some secrets we keep because they are too painful to remember. Others might lead us to walk away from what we most love. Yet the repercussions of these actions, and the quest for the truth, ripple much farther than we can anticipate.
That’s exactly what happens here. As Ella prepares to fight for custody of Annie and Zach, she learns there is much she doesn’t know about Joe’s family, who she has come to know and love. She learns that secrets from her own past have enabled her to see only what she wants to see. I’d love to say more about that here, but if I do, I’ll be spoiling major plot points but suffice it to say that Halverson deftly explores secrets and truth in a multitude of layers.
I struggled a bit with the ending of the novel. A part of me thinks it was wrapped up a little too neatly, that too many people get bogged down in the messiness of life to make this ending work in reality. But another, bigger, more hopeful part of me thinks that if people are striving to be their best self, to be generous enough to do what is best for them and others, then this is precisely the ending we should have. I’ll let you come to your own conclusion on that one.
The Underside of Joy was a wonderful read, and a stunning debut novel that will likely stick with you for a few days after finishing it. It did for me, as I contemplated just how much Ella chose to see only what she wanted to.
You can check out Sere Prince Halverson’s website here to get more details about the book and Sere herself.