It was funny, Sara thought as she left the courtyard and headed back out into the maze of streets. She couldn’t remember the last time she had really looked up and paid attention to anything higher than the top of her children’s heads. She had spent the past eight years looking at the ground ahead for things that would trip them, or behind for things they had dropped. The world had diminished to a height of four feet. And yet here it was, with a sky full of birds.
(from Joy for Beginners)
Joy for Beginners opens with a dinner party to celebrate Kate beating cancer. Her daughter, Robin, wants Kate to accompany her on a whitewater rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, but Kate is scared. Having survived a disease that could have taken her life, Kate doesn’t want to take unnecessary risks. But she decides that she will do it if her six friends are willing to let her choose adventures for them to tackle. Although their assignments don’t seem as risky as whitewater rafting, Kate chooses things that will challenge them, make them face life head on, and inspire them to become the women they’d always longed to be.
Erica Bauermeister tackles each of these women separately, creating a series of interconnected short stories. She displays the strengths and weaknesses of these women, who have been there for each other through the good and the bad. Caroline, who is struggling to accept the end of her marriage; Daria, who tries so hard to be unique and rebellious to hide her pain; Sara, who hasn’t made time for herself since she had children; Hadley, who’s been hiding from the world since her husband’s death; Marion, who is trying to settle into a house empty of children; and Ava, who still struggles to move beyond her mother’s death.
Bauermeister’s writing is descriptive, sensual, and insightful. I was blown away by her vivid descriptions of food in The School of Essential Ingredients, and I wasn’t disappointed this time around. In her hands, something as ordinary as gardening or baking bread is a thing of beauty, engaging all of the senses. Her prose envelopes you in emotion, and you just know that she truly understands her characters and wants you to understand them as well.
My only complaint is that I wanted more time with these women. Even if I couldn’t identify with their particular experiences, I learned enough about who they were before and how they came to be at this point in their lives to care about them as if they were truly friends. When their sections ended, only hinting as to what came next, I was torn away from them before I was ready to say goodbye. However, I appreciate how Bauermeister handled the characters and am amazed that she packed so much detail — in both what was said and what wasn’t — in so few pages. Each of the seven women was distinct, and because Bauermeister takes such great care to distinguish them in terms of age, personality, and life circumstances and show how and why they bonded together, it’s never difficult to tell them apart.
Joy for Beginners is simply a beautiful novel about friendship and families and finding your way after marriage or children or illness causes you to forget who you are. It’s painfully sad at times, but hopeful as well. The writing is simply gorgeous, and I turned the last page feeling as satisfied as if I’d just finished a hearty meal of my favorite comfort foods.
Disclosure: I received Joy for Beginners from the author for review.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.