In Sere Prince Halverson’s The Underside of Joy, Ella Beene has finally found happiness in her marriage to Joe, a grocery store owner with two small children. There are some lingering issues that Ella seems reluctant to face, but they are mostly happy in their sleepy, close-knit community, surrounded by Joe’s family and their friends. When Joe dies unexpectedly in an accident, a grieving Ella assumes that she will raise their two young children whose biological mother, Paige, has long been out of the picture. Ella is, basically, the only mother the children have known. Initially Ella thinks nothing of Paige showing up at Joe’s funeral, after all what claim can she have? But, Ella quickly realizes that she will have a fight on her hands to keep her family intact.
I loved a lot of what Halverson did in this novel, her writing is fresh and engaging, but for some reason the novel never really grabbed me. I was curious to see what the outcome would be, and that kept me reading to the end, but the short time period in which the story was told made it feel rushed and a tad implausible. The passage of more time would have made it more realistic, but as it stood, all the action with Paige, the children and Ella’s revitalizing the family business (so that she can claim a steady income) is rather sudden. The story seems to span just a few short months.
I also felt that I needed more of a feel for what Ella was all about. There are some references to her troubled first marriage, but I still never felt like I had a handle on the character. Paige’s intrusive actions were over the top. Halverson has an easy and inviting style, and it’s easy to get caught up in the lives of her characters, but more development and adjustment in the pacing of the story would have made an interesting premise and novel really shine.