Saturday, February 25, 2012

Book Review: "The Underside of Joy" by Sere Prince Halverson

A stepmother has raised two children for three years. The birth mother left when the younger son was only months old. The older girl remembers her mother a little, but her brother doesn't remember her at all. When the mother re-enters their life, does she have any say in their upbringing? Can she now request custody even though she gave it up when she left? The situation is complicated by the accidental death of the father. The stepmother assumed she would continue raising the kids, whom she loves as her own, but the appearance of the mother throws them all into confusion.

Ella is the stepmother, and Paige is the birth mother. Paige lives in busy Las Vegas while Ella and the kids live in Northern California, in a sleepy little town where their father's family has been for several generations. Ella thinks it's unfair for Paige to expect to take the kids full-time, uprooting them from everything they have ever known, but Paige has the law on her side. What's really the best thing for the kids?

The Underside of Joy addresses the issue of motherhood. Does giving birth automatically mean certain unalienable rights, or does the nurture of a stepmother mean she also has some rights? The courts might have one opinion, but the family involved has another.

What is family anyway? After her husband's unexpected death,  Ella finds out the family store has been going under for months, perhaps years. She has in-laws to support her decision to try and turn things around, and things go smoothly until she makes a choice that keeps Paige permanently in the picture. The in-laws are suddenly furious that, even though Paige is the children's mother, their grandkids will be taken away from them. They never liked Paige, and they adore Ella. Which woman is considered part of the family?

The family's anger stems from an incident little talked-about in American history, and Ella finally confronts them and learns their secret. Paige has a secret too, one that led her to abandon her children at very young ages, but Ella also has been carrying around a secret for nearly thirty years. The Underside of Joy is also about the messes we make when we don't talk about what is really going on inside out heads.

Sere Prince Halverson is a mom and stepmom herself, and one can imagine her asking, What if something similar happened to her and she was forced to choose between her stepchildren and their birth mother? How would two grieving women handle custody? Halverson writes tenderly, mostly from Ella's point of view as the book is in first person, but also with understanding on Paige's behalf. There is no black and white here, just many shades of grey.

I thought the turning incident was rather predictable, which led to a rushed ending. And I'm not fond of epilogues as I don't necessarily need everything neatly tied up, but these are minor flaws in an otherwise excellent book. It's not exactly fast-paced, yet it kept me up late because I could not stand to put it down. I simply had to read one more chapter, then one more, and just one more.

I was reminded of another book that deals with the definition of motherhood, Mothers and Other Liars. You can check out a little bit about it at the end of my blog post on When We Were Friends, which addresses a similar issue but in a way that didn't impress me. However, feel free to check out all three books if this topic is of interest.

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