- Joy for Beginners by Erica Bauermeister
- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Putnam Adult (June 9, 2011)
- ISBN-13: 978-0399157127
Back-of-the-book blurb: At an intimate, festive dinner party in Seattle, six women gather to celebrate their friend Kate’s recovery from cancer. Wineglass in hand, Kate strikes a bargain with them. To celebrate her new lease on life, she’ll do the one thing that’s always terrified her: white-water rafting. But if she goes, all of them will also do something they always swore they’d never do – and Kate is going to choose their adventures.
She Is Too Fond of Books’ review: I may be the only person in the universe who hasn’t (yet) read Erica Bauermeister’s The School of Essential Ingredients – a book club favorite when it debuted two years ago. This, I promise, will soon be remedied!
A few months ago I received an advance copy of Bauermeister’s second novel, Joy for Beginners. Recalling the praise I’d heard about The School of Essential Ingredients, I picked it up one weekend when I was in the mood for something “lighter.”
Does “lighter” make a reader cry (three times, including one sob session)? Does “lighter” feel like a kick in the gut when the reader identifies with the “adventure” Kate has chosen for her? Does “lighter” inspire an “a-ha!” moment when the reader realizes that, yes, one particular adventure might not be a “challenge” for me, but, it perfectly suits that character and her situation.
You get the picture. Joy for Beginners should not be dismissed as a “light” read, and shame on me for attaching that label!
Kate, a single mom, has competed her treatment/surgery/reconstruction for breast cancer, and throws a dinner party to help those girlfriends who’ve helped her during this time. At the party, it develops that, just as Kate’s grown daughter, Robin, has invited (challenged) her to a white water rafting trip, Kate will invite her friends to “do one thing in the next year that is scary or difficult or that we’ve always said we were going to do but haven’t.”
These women are from all walks of life; although they’ve crossed paths as one or another of them has needed a hand, it really does seem to be Kate who is the thread that ties them all together. The challenge she chooses for each woman can only come from a friend who knows them so intimately, who knows what might provide a bit of discomfort along the way, but, in the end, will lead to growth.
I won’t share the individual challenges that Kate chooses for each friend, as that will be revealed as the reader discovers their backgrounds and personalities, and comes to understand why Kate assigns them as she does. Some may seem less challenging than others, but for the character (and for readers who identify with that character), it is the ultimate test.
The first and last chapters are bookends about Kate which frame the middle chapters about her friends. These middle chapters focus so strongly on the individual that there’s very little connection to the rest of the group (or even to Kate, in some cases). At first this felt a little disjointed to me, but as I got into the rhythm of the book, I realized that it allowed me to fully immerse myself in this character’s world and learn her backstory. Erica Bauermeister gives each equal play (the chapters are about the same length), which further shows me there’s no “pecking order;” each woman’s story is equally important.
Readers will likely identify with some characters more than others, and be struck more emotionally by these. This, of course, makes Joy for Beginners an excellent choice for a book group discussion. Aside from talking about the novel, it leads to the questions of “what challenge would you choose for yourself?” and “what challenge would you choose for me?” There is a reading group discussion guide on the author’s website; take a look at it after you’ve read the book (contextual spoilers!)
For those who’ve read the book and are keeping score at home, I shed tears during Hadley’s story, bawled as I read Ava’s, and cried pretty steadily through the last ten pages of the novel. All in a good way – tears of recognition, gratefulness, and connection. Very satisfying.