JOY FOR BEGINNERS by Erica Bauermeister

Book Quote:

“I propose we make a pact. If Kate agrees to go down the Grand Canyon, we’ll each promise 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.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (JUN 9, 2011)

A few years ago, a new phrase burst into our vernacular: “the bucket list,” based on a movie in which two men confront their limitations and prepare a list of things they must do. The list is predictably exotic: skydiving, flying over the North Pole, eating dinner at Chevre d’Or in France.

In Joy for Beginners, it’s the women’s turn to enact that list. On an uncharacteristically sunny day in Seattle, six women assemble to celebrate their friend Kate’s clean bill of health from breast cancer. Unbeknownst to them, right before arrival, Kate’s daughter had suggested an exhilarating white water rafting trip down the Grand Canyon. Her friends urge her on and she agrees to go on one condition: that she gets to choose a challenge for each of her friends to overcome.

Unlike an adventurous male version, the challenges are far more targeted and subtle. For example, the recently divorced book store owner, Caroline, is asked to sort through her ex-husband’s library and dispose of all the books he left behind, clearing the decks (or the shelves!) for a new life. Daria, a gifted but restless potter, is directed to mold loaves of bread as a way of getting past emotional damage done by a hypercritical mother. Another friend, Ava, who was most reluctant to visit Kate at the hospital, as a result of flashbacks to her own mother’s battle with cancer, is requested to do the sixty mile breast cancer fundraising walk. And so on.

If this sounds a little formulaic, it’s because it is. Each woman, in turn, must confront her deepest fears and ask herself: what is holding me back? What am I most afraid of? What obstacle must I overcome to grow and thrive? What does it truly mean to be alive? As each discovers, hidden terrors need not be physically demanding ones, such as whitewater rafting. Often the little things that seem simple on the surface (making bread, tackling an overgrown garden, getting a tattoo) are indicative of more daunting issues.

Each chapter comes with its own back story; we get to meet each friend, one by one, learn the task that she has been assigned by Kate, and see how she is capable of accomplishing that task – whether it’s connecting with the right man, gaining a degree of added independence, or delving into herself to face her fears. Unlike real life, there is resolution for each and every woman. By the time Kate takes her own journey down the river – a metaphor, of course, for life – she is able to recognize her own cathartic role in the lives of her friends. “She had been a river, Kate thought, the thing that took them close to death made them suddenly, courageously, honest.”

Joy for Beginners is a book for a select audience, primarily women who enjoy inspirational tales about how the power of sisterhood can help transform lives. Its message is a powerful one: by taking risks and opening up to joy, one can surmount any personal obstacle including dealing with divorce, accepting a mother’s failings, embracing independence, acknowledging hidden talents, and choosing to live with confidence. At the end, it’s likely that each woman will question, “What is the one thing in life that I need to deal with to live more fully?” And that, of course, is the point.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 17 readers
PUBLISHER: Putnam Adult (June 9, 2011)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Erica Bauermeister
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler



June 9, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Reading Guide, Theme driven

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