JOY FOR BEGINNERSJoy For Beginners – Erica Bauermeister – Book Review                                                            
Berkley Books/2011
  By – Sheri de Grom

Joy For Beginners by Erica Bauermeister begs the question: are we willing to face our darkest fears?

Bauermeister’s protagonist, Kate, survived an eighteen-month grueling battle with breast cancer and has now packed her daughter, Robin, off to college. My initial thought: what could be worse than breast cancer, or any form of cancer?

Robin is elated that her mother is in remission and wants to do something fun after her freshman year of college. Robin posts a brightly colored brochure of a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon on her mother’s bulletin board in the kitchen and asks her to think about taking the trip. Kate doesn’t have to think about it. She’s not going. The trip speaks of fear to Kate and she’d had all the fear she needs for one lifetime.

Kate invites six of her closest friends to dinner to thank them for taking care of her during her bout with cancer. The friends insist on a potluck. The dinner turns into a life-changing event for each woman.

The seven women created by Erica Bauermeister have known each other for years. Kate and Caroline met when their children were in preschool; Daria and Marion were sisters; and Sara and Hadley were neighbors. Ava and Kate were freshmen in college together. The seven women bonded through the years because of their common or uncommon friendship with Kate.

Over dinner, Kate’s friends urge her to face her fear of the Grand Canyon trip her daughter wants to take. After all, she’s survived cancer.

Kate gives in to the trip with her daughter but on one condition. Each of her friends will tackle a fear of their own and she gets to hand pick the mission they must complete within the year.

Each character faces her fear within her own chapter of the novel and the reader is given the opportunity to become intimately acquainted with the rationale behind each woman’s fear and why she’s elected to live with it instead of facing reality head on.

Caroline is a used book buyer at a local bookstore. The assignment Kate gives her is to get rid of all the books her ex-husband left behind when he moved out of their home. Caroline still has a hard time imaging a home without her husband although he’s been gone nine months. Caroline learns more about herself with each bit of new space that opens up in her house as she hauls books away.

Daria is given a gallon Ziploc bag filled with off-white goo. The goo is supposedly ‘Amish Friendship Bread.’

. . . Pg 56 [What was the point anyway? She wasn’t Amish. She liked cars and bread from the store, and the way a zipper could slide down your back in the right man’s hands. She wasn’t her mother, the bread-making queen. Her dishes didn’t match, because she made them herself—not that her mother ever seemed that impressed with Daria’s pottery. Why did you have to prove you could bake bread when you made the plates you served it on?]

Daria always told people that unpredictability was her birthright, earned by her unanticipated conception on the night of her sister Marion’s sixteenth birthday party. She didn’t have anything to prove to anyone or did she?

Kate had given her friend Sarah the gift of a circle of friends to help with her twins five days a week at what they called the witching hour, the time around five o’clock when everything had a way of falling apart.

When Kate was diagnosed with cancer, Sarah reversed the gift and the women moved into action to care for Kate. Kate is now in remission and doesn’t need Sarah’s constant care and the twins have grown.

. . . Pg 106 [Sarah didn’t know how Kate had guessed what she was feeling. But that evening of Kate’s victory celebration, Kate had looked across the table with such compassion and more than a little bit of mischief and given Sarah the challenge of taking a trip alone, as if, fully aware of the consequences, she was handing a child a chocolate éclair before breakfast.] . . .

Join Sarah as she spends days and nights discovering Venice.

Hadley lives in the smallest house imaginable but somehow it seems just right for her. Her husband was killed in an automobile accident and she wants a place to hide. The tiny house with the overgrown garden seems as good a place as any. Perhaps the vines would grow over the house with her inside.

Three weeks after moving in, a woman appeared at Hadley’s door and asked if she wanted to join a baby holding circle and she became a member of the close knit group.

Hadley’s assignment the night of Kate’s dinner—clear your overgrown garden—she’ll be surprised by her discoveries.

Marion wanted a tattoo as a teenager but had always done what her parents expected of her. Her younger sister, Daria didn’t think a thing about going against their parent’s wishes. Marion thought perhaps Daria got the tattoos to wear as secrets on the outside in order to distract from the secrets within.

Kate challenges Marion to get a tattoo. Marion, a journalist by profession, turns the challenge into research before meeting her secret fear which isn’t such a secret after all.

Ava was expected to know everything about taking care of Kate during her bout with cancer. However, Kate is the only one who understands why Ava cannot care for her while her other friends can.

. . . Pg 196 [What was she supposed to say when people looked at her and shook their heads, reminded her of how long she had known Kate, disappointment and disapproval woven through their words. What could she say?]

It’s no surprise when Kate assigns Ava the challenge of participating in a breast cancer fund-raising walk covering-three days and sixty miles. Ava accepts the challenge.

Each character has her own unique voice in Joy For Beginners. Internal conflict is powerful and it enriches the story from page one. The element that draws me—as a reader—to women’s fiction time and again is the opportunity to glean from internal dialogue the angst that can be drawn to sheer perfection. Erica Bauermeister is a character-driven author with exceptional storytelling capabilities. She is a master of building deliciously different characters. Each woman is complex and different in her own needs while the individual story arcs complete the total story.

 Joy For Beginners is a relaxing and rewarding weekend read.

About Sheri de Grom

Retired Fed/JAG, 5 yrs. on Capitol Hill. Former book buyer for B and N. Concerned citizen of military drawdown. Currently involved in mental healthcare reform, health care strategist and actively pursuing legislative change wherein dual retirees are exempt from enrolling in Medicare at their own discretion without losing tertiary healthcare benefits. Monitor and comment on Federal Register proposed legislation involving Mental Health, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, Medicare and rural libraries. Licensed OSHA Inspector to include Super Fund sites. Full time caregive to Vietnam era veteran. Conceptualized, investigated possible alternatives, authored, lobbied for, and successfully implemented Title X, Section 1095 (known as the Third Party Collection Program of Federal Insurance).
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  1. Wonderful review! I am curious for the book now!

  2. This actually sounds like a beautiful book about women and friendship…and like something I’d truly enjoy reading. I think I may need to add this to my reading list as my “change of pace” read. 😀 Thanks for the wonderfully engaging review!

  3. This sounds like a mix of “The Ya-Ya Sisterhood” books and “The Traveling Pants” books. I think I’d like to read this one! I have to thank you for your reviews because I’m very bad at throwing modern fiction into my reading pile. It’s good for me to see your suggestions. 🙂

    • Hi Rachie – While I consider ‘The Ya Ya Sisterhood’ books and ‘The Traveling Pants’ books more in the category of Chic Lit, I think you’ll find ‘Joy For Beginners’ more in the category of ‘Women’s Fiction.’ I always dislike labeling novels to go into specific categories. Perhaps we might consider ‘Joy For Beginners’ as being all grown up. The characters are actually women but they have unfinished business and most of the unfinished business comes from that period of time when they might have been in those ‘Traveling Pants.’

  4. Jane Sadek says:

    Sounds good, but maybe a little heavy. When I finally get around to reading for pleasure, I want it to be light.

    • Hi Jane – You make me laugh. I read ‘Joy For Beginners’ to have a break from some of the ‘heavy’ topics I’d been reading. Tell me, what are some of your favorite light reads.

      • Jane Sadek says:

        Lately? Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland. It’s about Renoir. Not the best writing in the world, but I enjoyed the subject matter. I’ll be honest with you, I’m not finding the kind of novels I used to really enjoy, like James Michener and James Clavell. And some of the people I used to like aren’t writing like they used to, like Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy. I liked Dan Brown better before he became famous. I think I’m a literary dinosaur.

  5. Ginger Calem says:

    Ah, sounds like a powerful book to read to help face any individual fears one might have. Great review!

  6. Internal conflict is difficult to portray while keeping the story moving and the reader interested. The fact that you give this such high points on that alone makes me want to read it. Great review.

  7. JK Bevill - Lost Creek Publishing says:

    Reblogged this on lost creek publishing.

  8. Sheri, This looks like a great book. The story line is compelling and waves at me to come and take a look!

    Thanks for sharing this review,

  9. Sheri, the tone of this book sounds like Kris Radish … a great WF read and an interesting character study at once. You always know how to zero in on those books that are character driven and I love it. Thanks for another great selection 🙂

  10. I’ve added it with the others to my online cart, so excited to start my summer reading! Thank you for sharing this!

  11. Just ordered it and can’t wait to start reading — and by the way, I didn’t miss photos at ALL because your words are so good!

  12. I’m buying this. I love the theme of each woman having to face a certain fear. How very very cool. Thanks so for the review, Sheri, as always.

  13. iamforchange says:

    I enjoyed reading your review as always, tattoo’s, foreign travel, cancer, chocolate Eclairs, an intriguing combination especially when combined with seven women… I love reading your reviews! Thank you for sharing them! 🙂 Joe

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