Ella has a wonderful husband in Joe, and a happy family with children Annie and Zach, as well as the extended family offered by Joe's large Italian family, all settled in rural Elbow, in northern California. After her previous, unhappy marriage ended, she left and chanced upon this new, fulfilling life, living happily with her new family and seemingly having little to worry about. Then tragedy strikes them from nowhere, as Joe passes away after a tragic accident. Ella must pick up the pieces, but she has more to contend with than just the immense grief and loss at Joe's death. The childrens' birthmother Paige, whom Ella has always understood had left Joe and the children to fend for themselves, now appears at Joe's funeral, and seems to now want to once again become involved in Annie and Zach's lives. Additionally, Joe's grocery store, which is steeped in family history, is in much more trouble than he had ever let on to Ella, and she has to try and contend with the bills and demands of the failing business as well as everything else.
At times the story was very sad, so much grief to be endured, so much loss. Ella has to deal with so much, and just when you think she has got to the hardest part, another challenge comes along which forces her to consider very deeply what is the right thing to do, morally. It's an incredibly hard decision and she comes under pressure from those around her. I think she takes the only path that could offer her a future free of guilt and anxiety. Then there is Paige. Was it post-natal depression that led her to struggle so much with her children? We discover more as the story unfolds. There were moments where I don't think I could have been as strong as Ella manages to be.
The author also deals with issues such as painful, buried history, one of them touching on the past of this Italian family in the wider context of America in the twentieth century, and weaving issues that affected previous generations of their family into having a significance, a lesson almost, with regard to the main storyline about Ella. The story depicts the dangers of people not opening up to each other, but instead keeping their mouths shut and hoping things will go away, leaving truths to be uncovered that have long been hidden.
Nature is represented strongly here, something close to Ella's heart. I felt the giant redwood trees of California were a vivid, ever-present backdrop to the story, and very symbolic at times for Ella and her situation:
'I loved the way redwoods grow in circular groves, reproducing through 'suckers' - shoots that root in the ground and form new trees - which draw nourishment from the mother tree, even from its roots after the tree is long gone...hundreds, even thousands of years. And yet, if you were to take the younger shoots away from the mother tree and attempt to replant them, they would most likely wither and die.'
The Underside of Joy is a well-written, accomplished book for a debut. It kept me turning the pages throughout. I enjoyed the wider cast of characters as well as the main ones. The author is herself a stepmum and so has evidently been able to draw on her own experience in creating this work of fiction.
I enjoyed this book and I would certainly read more by this author.
Reviewed for Amazon Vine