The Underside of JoyThe Underside of Joy by Sere Prince Halverson
Published by Dutton Adult, an imprint of Penguin
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley

Ella Beene has an idyllic life in northern California with her husband, Joe, and his two young children. But when Joe dies in a freak accident, Ella is left alone to raise these two children that she’s always thought of as her own. Unfortunately, their biological mother, Paige, has a different idea. Although Paige hasn’t seen the children in three years, and everything Ella knows about Paige has led her to believe the children were abandoned by their mother, Paige comes back to town with a different story – and a fight in her to get the children back and reclaim her family as her own. As the custody battle between Ella and Paige gets ugly, secrets that Joe had been keeping from Ella begin to emerge and call into question everything Ella always knew to be true about her husband and his past. She is desperate to keep her children, but she is also desperate for answers about the life she’s so carefully built and cultivated.

When I first picked up The Underside of Joy, I did not know what to expect, which I think was a good thing. I hadn’t read any other reviews of this book and wasn’t familiar with the premise, which definitely contributed to my enjoyment of it. I had no preconceived notions. In fact, I need to make a note to myself to read more books in this fashion – it helped me to just see the book for what it is, not for what my expectations of what it would be or for what I wanted it to be.

Anyway. The Underside of Joy is a fascinating look into a situation that is difficult to imagine – a stepmother and biological mother fighting over these two beautiful, innocent children. There is no good guy or bad guy in this story, even though from the start it seems clear that Ella is the obvious choice for who should raise these kids. But as the story unravels, things come to light that make the reader question his or her assumptions about who is the right mother for these children.

As I read the novel, I felt intense sympathy for Ella’s pain and the situation she was in. I also admired her as a character – she was distraught over Joe’s death, panicked over the idea of losing her kids, and desperate for answers about her husband’s past, yet she never felt sorry for herself or did anything other than attempt to move forward and protect her family. I was amazed at her strength in the face of such difficult circumstances and it really made me feel closer to her character. Shockingly, I liked Paige, once I got to know her, as well. She had a much different situation from Ella, but what she was going through was not much easier than what Ella was going through. Once I got to know her and understand her motivations, while I didn’t exactly admire her, I felt for her and wanted desperately for these two women to work something out so the real winner of the whole mess was the kids. so that both women could be a part of their lives.

Halverson deals with many issues in this novel – the death of one’s spouse, custody battles, postpartum depression – yet the book never feels heavy-handed. She carefully weaves all of these themes together into a novel that really works, with characters that shine despite their circumstances. I really enjoyed this one and I highly recommend it.