I am officially a fan of Erica Bauermeister. After re-reading The School of Essential Ingredients, and then moving on to her second novel, Joy for Beginners, I have moved her up into the ranks of my favorite authors. Her debut novel was not a fluke. Joy for Beginners is just as wonderful and full of wisdom.
The only thing about this book that was disappointing was that there was less food in it than in The School of Essential Ingredients. Ms. Bauermeister made up for that by including some excellent descriptions of the art and process of bread-baking.
This novel has another rather simple premise, and is again largely about a set of fully realized, relatable characters. A group of female friends come together at the beginning of the book to celebrate one’s triumph over cancer. This survivor, Kate, has a daughter who wants to bring her on a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. Kate’s friends urge her to go, to use this as an affirmation of the life that she almost lost. She agrees to take on the challenge if, in return, each of them performs an act requiring similar courage, something they’ve never done or need to do, before she leaves for the trip. The catch is that she gets to choose for each friend, just as they have chosen for her.
As she did before, in The School of Essential Ingredients, the author has given every character her own chapter, in which the details of that woman’s past and her present situation are revealed and explained. For me, each woman felt like a friend by the end of her chapter. They all have some sort of dissatisfaction in their lives, whether large or small. Some of them have to learn to cope with tragedy, some need to deal with the aftermath of their own mistakes. By the ends of their respective chapters, all of the women come to some sort of resolution through the completion of their challenges, with a little room left over for the reader’s interpretation.
This book is emotional, but not in a forced or exploitive way. It is easy and natural to become involved with the characters’ stories, to smile and cry with them along the way. The women experience personal breakthroughs, relief, and release – from hang-ups they had, or things they had been suppressing. The challenges set by Kate (and for Kate) generally end up being just what each woman needed to free herself from self-imposed shackles.
If done wrong, this story structure could have become formulaic or even trite, but in Ms. Bauermeister’s capable hands, it was simply satisfying.
There is some lovely phrasing in the book, the kind that makes you want to buy a copy so that you can do some dog-earing and underlining. The author has a gift for creating sensuality out of mere words, which is rounded out by her firm grasp on reality and the way people’s minds work. She knows a lot about love, possibly even more about good food, and she has a very clever way of entwining the two in her books.
This is absolutely a woman’s novel, not that a man couldn’t enjoy it. It is simply about very feminine issues, however politically incorrect it may be for me to say that. Sometimes it’s nice to be in a female space, even if that space is a book. It still feels safe, familiar, and nurturing.
It is quite an accomplishment to create that sense of comfort in something as intangible as a story, and with Joy for Beginners, Erica Bauermeister has done it for a second time.