Erica Bauermeister, author of The School of Essential Ingredients, said in an interview with Lucy Hannau that she “wanted to write books about the small, ‘unimportant’ things in life.” Indeed, much like her previous best-selling novel, Joy for Beginners shimmers with lush descriptions as it celebrates the unexpected. It is a tale of the adventures, forgiveness, love and recognition that a close-knit group of friends shares, starting with a celebratory dinner party.
Kate, one of the seven women on which Joy for Beginners focuses, hosts a dinner in honor of her recovery from cancer. With wineglass in hand and illness in the rear-view mirror, she promises her friends that she will take a risk that has always terrified her – she will go white-water rafting down the Grand Canyon. Kate’s vow, however, is only valid if each of her friends promises to do something equally intimidating. “But here’s the deal,” Kate says in the prologue, “I didn’t get to choose mine, so I get to choose yours.”
Thus begins Joy for Beginners, a novel that, like The School of Essential Ingredients, presents each character in a series of poignant vignettes. There is Daria, the potter who has constructed walls around herself; Hadley, a woman haunted by the early death of her husband; Marion, the intelligent empty-nester; Ava, the business partner afraid of loss; Caroline, a woman drowning in post-divorce memories; and Sara, the young wife whose life orbits around her family. And then there’s Kate, the cautious, unselfish woman who assigns her friends a variety of tasks – from the gentle creation of a loaf of bread, to the sting of a tattoo needle.
In addition to a keen ability to characterize, Bauermeister bombards readers with adjectives as vivid and lively as the turbulent river Kate later confronts. From the prologue to the last paragraph, Bauermeister enraptures the reader, gives him or her reason to be inspired, to be hopeful. With each vignette, I found myself delving into the secrets of yet another character, another woman who radiates courage and familiarity.
As far as I’m concerned, I find that the reader may connect with one woman more than another. Personally, I found myself most interested in the stories of those who read or wrote themselves – Caroline and Marion. In fact, one of my favourite passages is from Caroline’s story, a richly detailed paragraph that describes Marion.
Marion was originally from the Midwest, a geographical inheritance that didn’t so much cling as grow up through her. Her face had the openness of cornfields and river bottoms, a calm belief in herself nourished by thick, green summer air, the feel of slow water moving beneath the hull of a canoe.
Though I did ache for an epilogue, I can say that I enjoyed Joy for Beginners much more than I originally anticipated. I found myself dog-earing pages, writing down quotes and reflecting upon passages that relate to my own reality. That’s Bauermeister’s gift – her words, her message, her observations about the minutia sneak into your heart when you least expect it. She brings to life a variety of ages, a variety of characters, a world where both the rapids of the Grand Canyon and the canals of Venice encourage you to think about life’s “little things.”
Publishing Date: June 2011
Formats Available: Hardcover, Kindle, Audio