‘The Underside of Joy’ by Seré Prince Halverson is an intriguing debut novel. It takes place in the small northern California town of Elbow, near vineyards and Redwood forests.

Protagonist Ella Beene meets Joe Capozzi, falls in love with him and becomes stepmother to his two small children, Annie and Zach.

Their blissful situation ends tragically three years after the beginning of the novel, when Joe drowns off the coast of California. Paige Capozzi, the children’s biological mother, had abandoned her children when the younger child was a few months old, because of postpartum depression. Ella, having nurtured the children all of this time, considers them her children.

Paige attends Joe’s funeral. She announces she wants to reclaim her children. Ella, grieving for her husband and now the possible loss of the children in a custody battle, feels that her world has been upended.

The story deals with the relationship between these two women exploring step-motherhood and blended families.

The conflict is that both Ella and Paige consider themselves mothers of the same children. After Joe’s death, Ella begins to uncover secrets – among them, the fact that the small family business is deeply in debt.

Joe had kept this from Ella as well as Paige’s efforts to see her children and a stack of letters from Paige. This all comes out just as the custody battle has been almost finalized in Ella’s favor.

Ella speaks to people who knew Paige before she left, and this helps Ella begin to unravel some truths and to understand that Paige’s life has also been ripped
apart. She begins, too, to see some truths about herself.

The author‘s writing is subtle in the way in which she deals with the standard stereotypes of stepmothers and blended families. This is a compelling story about how past events can influence present actions.