Seré Prince Halverson's debut novel, The Underside of Joy, is the breathtaking story of what happens when your world changes in an instant. A rogue wave takes Ella's husband, Joe, and in an instant everything changes. For three years, Ella has been the only mother their children have known. When Joe's ex-wife Paige shows up at his funeral, intent on reclaiming her children, it becomes clear that nothing will ever be the same again.
While reading this novel, I couldn't help but think that we were all so close to not reading it. Back in May, at BookExpo America's Adult Editors Book Buzz panel, I sat on the floor (it was a crowded room), and I heard the story of how The Underside of Joy came to be published. Penguin Editor Denise Roy told us how this book was rescued from that thing that aspiring writers dread -- the slush pile. It was rescued by literary agent Elizabeth Weed and later passed into Roy's hands. Roy, a widow, was approaching the one-year anniversary of her husband's death when the book found its way to her. It is a somewhat tragic coincidence of perfect timing, but the topic alone isn't what sold the book. The writing is superb.
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The Underside of Joy isn't a novel of stepmother versus birth mother. Ella isn't all good, and Paige isn't all bad. They just don't know each other, and what they do know is not the whole story. There's too much misinformation -- too many secrets. Many times while reading the book, you wish that someone really was the bad guy. There were times I wanted to hate Paige, but I couldn't. I will confess to frequently wishing that Joe were real and alive so I could grab him by his coat collar and give him a good shake. Even though I tried, and believe me I tried, I couldn't make Joe the bad guy. He made mistakes, but he never intended to leave them for others to fix.
I have to give thanks to Prince Halverson for reminding me just how far we've advanced the conversation about post-partum depression since the 1990s. I have spent years online reading personal stories and reading the words of women like Katherine Stone who encourage us all to become educated about post-partum depression and share our stories. What would have had happened if Paige had been able to communicate with other women struggling with post-partum depression?
In The Underside of Joy, Seré Prince Halverson didn't just give us a novel about family drama. She gave us a novel about love, hope and redemption. For every happiness, there is an equal and opposite moment. It is, indeed, the underside of joy.
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