Sere Prince Halverson’s debut novel, The Underside of Joy, explores a family where the lack of a legal relationship between stepparent and stepchildren contributes to an already complicated situation. Having arrived on the scene just a few months after Joe Capozzi’s wife left him and their two small children--one just a baby--Ella Beene falls very easily into their lives, and a near-instant family is born. Three years later, that family is almost as instantly broken when Joe is suddenly swept into the ocean and drowned. Ella’s struggles with her own grief, and that of the daughter and son who feel like her own, are complicated by the unexpected discoveries she’s making about things Joe never told her...especially the ones about the family business that’s barely surviving and the children’s mother who wants to re-establish her relationship with them. Paige Capozzi left her kids while in the depths of major postpartum depression, fearful for their safety with her; she’s recovered now and rebuilding her life, and wants them back in it. The fact that her children have just lost their father and have little recollection of her as their mother isn’t going to deter her from pursuing that goal.
One dead parent and a custody conflict would be enough domestic drama on their own, but Halverson adds in a history of family secrets and Things Not Discussed to raise the stakes. Some of the Things Not Discussed were between Ella and Joe, and as she starts digging into them after his death, she’s forced to recognize her own complacency and willingness not to know. Willful denial plays at least as much of a role in this family’s lives as does deliberate secret-keeping, and things don’t begin to change until Ella pushes herself past her own denial and begins to dig for the truth.
There is a lot of story packed into The Underside of Joy, but little of it feels extraneous. Having said that, there were a few plot points that felt a bit contrived and Lifetime-movie-ish to me, most notably one dramatic episode near the end of the novel; I was invested enough in this family’s story by then that I found it unnecessary. Halverson is both a mother and a stepmother, and although she chooses to narrate the story through stepmother Ella’s first-person perspective, she deals with the complex nuances of the relationships here with great empathy and effectiveness, and I was very impressed by that. The Underside of Joy looks at the blended-family relationship under fairly extreme conditions, but within that framework, it explores some broader truths, both factual and emotional.