It isn’t surprising that Ella Beene’s husband, Joe Capozzi, dies within the first 10 pages of The Underside of Joy. After all, the jacket copy reveals that this story is about the personal struggles and family challenges Ella faces after her husband’s death. But the juxtaposition of Seré Prince Halverson’s descriptions of pure, unadulterated joy, and the reader’s knowledge that Ella’s joy has an expiration date, is breathtaking.

In the opening pages, Ella says, “For three years, I did backflips in the deep end of happiness. The joy was palpable and often loud. Other times it softened—Zach’s milky breath on my neck, or Annie’s hair entwined in my fingers as I braided it, or Joe’s humming some old Crowded House song in the shower while I brushed my teeth.”

Debut novelist Halverson paints a picture of Ella’s everyday life, married to Joe and raising her stepchildren, Annie and Zach, in a coastal Northern California town. Ella was still fresh out of her first marriage when she met Joe. The couple fell for each other hard and fast, and were married within a year. He, too, was divorced; Joe’s first wife, Paige, had left him and the kids months earlier, with hardly a word since. Ella is the only mother they have ever known. Until, of course, Paige shows up at Joe’s funeral and begins the fight to regain custody of her children.

The first third of The Underside of Joy is rich with detail, recounting Ella’s move from joy to mourning to struggles with Paige and the faltering family business Joe left behind. Though the plot at first moves slowly, Halverson’s prose is captivating. In fact, it’s once the plot quickens that the book hits occasional weak points, where plot takes precedence over previously enchanting descriptions. But as she mines the family secrets her characters hold close and how those affect their relationships with one another, Halverson proves she’s a wordsmith and a storyteller to keep an eye on.

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