To Ella Beene, happiness means living in the Northern California river town of Elbow with her husband, Joe, and his two young children. For three years, Ella has been the only mother the kids have known. But when Joe drowns off the coast, his ex-wife shows up at his funeral, intent on reclaiming the children. Ella must fight to prove they should remain with her while she struggles to save the family’s market. With wit and determination, she delves beneath the surface of her marriage, finally asking the questions she most fears, the answers jeopardizing everything and everyone she most loves.
This book lets you know things are gonna go from bliss to bad pretty quick for protagonist Ella Beene. In fact Halverson lays out her premise at the top:
For three years, I did back flips in the deep end of happiness…I also know now, years later, something else: The most genuine happiness cannot be so pure, so deep, or so blind. (1)
And then I think Halverson does a bang up job of taking us through the proof of her theory. Happiness doesn’t exist without sadness or loss, just as all light only exists in balance of dark.
Halverson’s language is evocative, not only of the verdant Northwest of California with its redwoods and chickens and cool streams, but of feeling, especially her feelings as a mother. She describes playing sailboat with her step kids in bed: “Even before breakfast, we set out across an uncharted expanse, a smooth surface hiding the tangled, slippery underneath of things, destination unknown” (2) even as she presages what’s to come.
There’s a great sense of place to this novel, in the loving way that Halverson describes the town of Elbow and its surrounding wine country, as well as being “of” a place. She explains the concept (which Ella sees as relating to her children as well as to wine):
“Terroir is the sense of place that you experience when you drink a glass of wine…the expression of the land it comes from…some say it’s everything – from what occurred here throughout the ages to the moment the bottle is uncorked.” (86-87)
Ella deals with the loss of her picture perfect husband in all too human ways, which leads her into further darkness. When she loses it while driving the car home after a long day at an amusement park in an attempt to distract the kids, concluding with, “Goddamn it! I can’t drive! Now, you two shut up! Shut up!” (66) I thought, No, no, don’t do that, you have to be the perfect mom right now or you’re gonna lose the kids. And in fact, as Ella’s ability to deal with not just the loss of Joe, but the financial mess he’s left behind makes her less and less able to deal and more liable to lose her step kids to their birth mother, Paige.
But what’s lovely about this book is that there really aren’t any bad guys or good guys. (Except maybe Las Vegas vs. Elbow, where Elbow won hands-down for me.) The now-perfect-on-the-surface Paige, reviled for leaving her children, is gradually fleshed out to be a flawed but moral woman. Everyone is in a situation that is problematic; there’s no easy fix. Ella struggles to do the right thing, as that path isn’t clear. But what she learns is that to do the right thing, she must stop doing what she’s been doing since surviving her own childhood tragedy:
Look the other way. Don’t ask. Ever. And good God, don’t say what you really think. (209)
Halverson takes us through all the characters’ struggles with accepting less than perfection in themselves and in the roles life has given them, to come out in surprising ways on the other side to a deeper, truer experience of happiness, and of course, joy.
- #420 ~ The Underside of Joy (literatehousewife.com)