Thursday, June 23, 2011

Joy for Beginners by Erica Bauermeister

Joy For Beginners by Erica Bauermeister
288 pages
Published June 2011 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours
*all quotes are from an uncorrected proof

Having survived breast cancer, Kate has no interest in risking death by going on the white water rafting trip her daughter is proposing. But at a celebratory dinner with six of her friends, Kate agrees to go on the trip, if each of the women agrees to a challenge of their own, a challenge that Kate will choose.

Caroline's son has just left for college when her husband leaves her for a younger woman leaving her wondering who she is if she is not a wife and a mother. Free-spirit Daria, is the youngest of the group, a potter who prides herself on being unpredictable.Wife and mother, Sara loves those roles but has recently started to wonder what happened to pre-marriage Sara.
"And she found herself wondering at what point in her life she had ceased to be Gulliver and had become the strings holding him to the ground."
Hadley, Sara's neighbor, is a young widow. In her grief, she purchased a house with a garden where the ivy has all but taken over everything else in the yard and cut off the house from the outside world. Kate challenges Hadley to clean up her garden, opening it back up to the world and uncovering all that is still there, buried beneath.
"When Sean died she understood for the first time how completely human beings were dependent upon a suspension of disbelief in order to simply move forward through their days. If that suspension faltered, if you truly understood, even if only for a moment, that human beings were made of bones and blood that broke and sprayed with the slightest provocation, and that provocation was everywhere--in street curbs and dangling tree limbs, bicycles and pencils--well you would fly for the first nest in a tree, run flat-out for the first burrow you saw."
Marion, the oldest of the group, is also the rock steady organizer. Where her sister, Daria, grew up pushing the limits, Marion was always the "good girl."
"There were moments in life, Marion thought, when you reached back, baton in hand, feeling the runner behind you. Felt the clasp of their fingers resonating through the wood, the release of your hand, which then flew forward, empty, into the space ahead of you."
Kate's best friend, Ava, whose mother died of cancer, is dealing with the guilt of not being with Kate during Kate's battle with cancer. How could she be? When her own mother was losing her own battle, Ava discovered that her hyper-sensitive sense of smell meant that she could tell when people were losing their battles.

And Kate? Kate who had looked death in the face and won? Kate is terrified of the raft trip, unable to grasp how she could possibly have allowed herself to be talked into willingly risking her life after working so hard to save it.

Joy For Beginners started slowly for me. I felt much the same way with this one as I did with The Four Ms. Bradwells: another story about a group of women; what can this one possibly offer that's new? First of all, Bauermeister has written the novel in a unique way that allows each character to take center stage as they tackle the challenge that Kate has assigned them. There is none of the "whole group together hashing out old grievances" that is so standard in novels about women. Instead, many of the characters don't even appear in the other character's chapters.

I suppose it should not have surprised me not to "click" with some of the ladies. If these were real people, it would stand to reason that there would be some that I wouldn't connect with. Still I began to be worried when I wasn't particularly drawn into Caroline's and then Daria's stories.In the same way, then it should not have taken me by surprise to have found myself so emotionally attached to other characters, some because I saw so much of myself in them. I found myself particularly drawn to Sara and Marion because I saw something of myself in them, but also to Hadley, who brought out the mother in me. Bauermeister really grabbed me with these two passages that seem to define so many women's lives:

"From the beginning, Sara had felt the pull toward procreation, toward Dan, as strong as the current of a river, deep and sensual, impossible to resist when she was ovulating. During the weeks when she was not fertile, she had felt like paper, thin and insubstantial, ready to blow away with the next wind."
"She had never felt the simple urgency of time more than in the past few years, as her ovaries creaked into silence and she had gone for months and then a year without the gush of blood or the deep purple sadness that came with it. She had understood that something was ceasing within her and, more important, would never start again. The cold reality of it had struck her, as if, perched on the crest of a roller coaster, the rest of the ride was suddenly irreversibly clear."
Perhaps it just took me until Sara's story to really understand where Bauermeister was going with the book, what she was trying to say. Once I did, I couldn't put the book down as I was drawn deeper into these women's lives. Bauermeister's writing is sublime and her messages universal: don't be afraid to lean on others, take a chance, discover your joy and embrace it. Highly recommended for book clubs.

Thanks to the ladies at TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour. For more reviews of this book, check out the full list of reviews on the tour. For more information on Ms. Bauermeister, check out her website or follow her on Facebook.


  1. I really want to read this one and I like the fact that each character was ale to take center-stage.
    Great review and Great quotes!

  2. I loved the audio version of The School of Essential Ingredients - looking forward to this one, too!

  3. I can't wait to read this one, as I loved Bauermeister's first novel. I'm glad it picked up for you and you were able to enjoy it.

  4. Interesting! I think I felt the *least* connection with Marion! Although I loved them all! (And, I should add, I usually avoid books about groups of women-friends like the plague, but knew I would love this one because of Baeurmeister's writing!)

  5. I also didn't like some of the women at all, but was able to enjoy the book anyway. I think I felt the most compassion for Hadley and Kate, who seemed to be the most broken of the bunch. This was a wonderful review and I am so glad to see that this book struck a chord in you. It was a really uniquely arranged and interesting book.

  6. This doesn't sound like my kind of book but I do like to find out about good bookclub books that offer lots of issues to stimulate conversation.

  7. I was on the fence with this one. Even after hearing her speak about the book I was still a little leary about a group of women getting together. Isn't that horrible? I am a woman! But, so many of those novels turn sappy to me.

    I'm glad that you identified with some of these women but I totally understand your fear about not being able to. I did the same thing with Bradwells.

  8. I really loved her first book and will read this one for sure. I'm glad that you were able to really connect with one of the characters and that the book finally clicked for you. Great review of this one.

  9. I'm glad that you stuck with this one - it sounds like it was really worthwhile once you figured out where the story was going.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!

  10. Lisa, I loved her first book, so I will be looking forward to this one. Nice review; thanks so much

  11. You pulled a great selection of excerpts! I missed that first one (Sara and Gulliver's strings) when I read the novel.

    I was afraid I might find that "each woman gets her own chapter" off-putting, with too much distance between the individual stories, but it really did allow me to connect more strongly with those who I identified with.


  12. I may be tiring of books about groups of women as well and I usually enjoy them. I absolutely adored this authors first book, School of Essential Ingredients but this one just didn't have the same touch for me. I didn't find myself connecting to the women and I really wanted to love this book. I'm the minority on this one as most reviewers love the book.

  13. All the reviews of this one have been so good! I'm glad to hear the book picked up for you. I can't wait to read it.

  14. I'm glad you liked it! I SO can't wait to read this one, I wonder if my library has it in yet...

  15. It's neat how different readers are affected by each of the women differently That sounds like a 'duh' statement.. but it's cool how Bauermeister can write a novel that appeals to so many different kinds of women of various ages, personalities, walks of life, etc.