Review: The Underside of Joy by Sere Prince Halverson

Title: The Underside of Joy

Author: Sere Prince Halverson

Published: Harper Collins Australia Feb 2012

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 soulmate 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.

Status: Read from January 26 to 27, 2012 — I own a copy {Courtesy Harper Collins Australia}

My Thoughts:

The Underside of Joy is a touching story of happiness and sorrow, motherhood and family. After fleeing her broken marriage, Ella stumbles upon her soul mate in the tiny town of Elbow, California. Dazzled by Joe’s good looks and the gorgeous children in his arms, Ella can hardly believe her luck and after a whirlwind courtship she is happily ensconced in family life. Then one morning, just three years later, Joe doesn’t come home and Ella’s perfect world comes crashing down. At his funeral Joe’s ex wife appears demanding access to the children she abandoned and Ella begins to unravel the secrets her husband had kept from her. Terrified of losing everything, Ella has to make some hard decisions and can only hope they are the right ones for the children she calls her own.

US Cover - Dutton Adult

I was drawn to The Underside of Joy by the intriguing premise and the promise of an interesting conflict between two women who both consider themselves mothers of the same children. 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. These are highly emotive issues and The Underside of Joy treats them sensitively. I connected with this book and it’s characters, on an emotional level, I was caught up in the drama and was prompted to wonder what I would consider to be best for the children.
I do have a few small complaints, though they didn’t really occur to me until after I had finished the novel. The children are just a little too precocious for their age, the characters are weighted towards stereotypes (the Italian mama, the reclusive artist, the trailer park crazy and the gay foodie) and the plot is a tad predictable. Still, it is to Halverson’s credit that it made absolutely no difference to me while I was reading because I was so emotionally invested in the story.
Unexpectedly there is also a subplot in the Underside of Joy that speaks to the little known internment of Italian Americans along with Japanese Americans during WW2 which is fascinating and fits surprisingly well into the themes of the plot.

The story of The Underside of Joy contrasts two women who both want the same thing, three year old Zach and six year old Annie. Ella has nurtured them for three years and considers them her children. Paige gave birth to them and though once she thought it best to remove herself from their lives, she wants them back.
Ella’s pain at the loss of her husband is raw with the sadness, anger and confusion you would expect from a grieving wife, which is magnified when she discovers her husbands secrets. I liked Ella a lot, even when I was tempted to judge her for what can be construed as willful ignorance, as she never really wanted details about the children’s mother or Joe’s business. I feel Halverson created a well developed protagonist in Ella, she is flawed and contradictory but that is what makes her real. She makes mistakes but ultimately tries to do what’s right, and takes steps to recover her fragile sense of self – seeing a lawyer, re-imagining the business. Naturally Ella is immediately sympathetic as she loves Zach and Annie so deeply.
I was ready to feel outraged at Paige’s demands for her children after she had left them, just a tiny baby and a three year old, with barely a backward glance but as Halverson slowly reveals the circumstances of her desertion I became more sympathetic. Paige isn’t as substantial in character as Ella but because this is really Ella’s story it doesn’t matter too much. It’s enough that we get her truth so that we are able to consider an alternative side of the story.
Both Ella and Paige are very much affected by their respective pasts, both touched by tragedy they are swayed by childhood patterns of thinking and behaviour. For both women, Joe’s death is the catalyst for them to make peace with their legacy.
The supporting characters also have their own stories, including David, Joe’s brother, who was overlooked to inherit the family store, and Liz who snubs Ella in allegiance to her past friendship with Paige. I also loved the setting, being a sucker for small towns with a real sense of community, which Halverson captures with evocative imagery.

The Underside of Joy is an emotionally compelling story and an impressive debut by Sere Prince Halverson. Poignant and thought provoking it captures the trials of motherhood, the intimate bonds of family and the indeed, the underside of joy.

Sere Prince Halverson will be my guest at Book’d Out on Monday, and a copy of The Underside of Joy will be up for grabs. Don’t miss it!

Available to Purchase

Australia: BoomerangBooks I Booktopia I Readings

International: @ Amazon (Kindle) I @ Amazon (print) I @ Book Depository

13 thoughts on “Review: The Underside of Joy by Sere Prince Halverson

    1. Most likely Stephanie – young children are capable of saying the most amazing things and sometimes have incredible insights, don’t get me wrong – but a lot of the time they are pretty uninterested in what is happening between adults and are more worried about what’s for dinner or avoiding bath time than anything else.


  1. This sounds like a really intense read! I’m glad you posted about it because I hadn’t actually heard of it before reading your review. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, I’m sure that I will be checking this book out!


  2. This isn’t usually the typ of book I’d go for, but I must admit that it does sound like a pretty good read! I may check it out when I’ve got time 🙂 Brilliant review.


  3. That does sound like a great read. I think it’s hard for authors to get kids right because some kids are so mature and others not. I often find kids written to do and say things that seem too young.
    Great point to make thought.


    1. I agree Michelle – I have a degree in early childhood education (and 4 kids) so I know how wildly different young children can be on the spectrum of development and I can imagine it’s difficult to get the characterisation right, particularly when they have a role to play in the story.


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