Review of “Joy for Beginners” by Erica Bauermeister

Generally I’m apt to eschew books about groups of women and their interrelationships. It seems too much of the “same old, same old” to me, and a cheap way to achieve sentimentality. But I did not shrink from reading this book by Bauermeister, because I knew from reading her previous book, The School of Essential Ingredients, that her writing talent and eye for the subtle vernacular of relationships would make a rewarding story. Indeed, I not only loved it, I wanted a sequel when I was done!

Kate is a cancer survivor for whom six close friends decide to throw a party after she has recovered from all of her treatments. They challenge Kate to accept her daughter’s invitation to go white-water rafting in the Grand Canyon to celebrate that she is alive. Kate is fearful, so the oldest of the group, Marion, proposes 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.”

The women agree, and Kate does too, on the condition that all the rest of the women accept challenges that she assigns to each of them. Thereafter, each chapter deals with a specific woman and how she conquers her assigned challenge.

Caroline’s task is to clear her house of her ex-husband’s books. Jack left her nine months earlier after twenty-five years together, and she still hasn’t adjusted. Jack had said he just wanted to be in love. Maybe, Caroline thought, “it had just become too hard, with all those lawns to mow and grocery lists, all the accumulated roles of their lives between them.”

Sara, who loves her three children but is restless, is challenged to take a trip alone.

Daria, who is full of anger and artifice, receives the assignment to learn how to make bread. Sara’s unmarried brother Henry is a baker…

Hadley, a young, now somewhat reclusive woman whose young husband had been killed in a car accident, is charged with taking care of her garden, which is full of flowers that are suffocating under the overgrown ivy.

Marion has been happy living a conventional life of “thirty-three years [of marriage], three children, four dogs, and one thousand three hundred thirty-five batches of Saturday pancakes.” She is a journalist who chronicles other lives. But a long time ago, she had wanted to be a writer of literature. She is tasked with getting a tattoo.

And finally, Ava, Kate’s best friend who avoided her during her bout with cancer, is charged with walking in the three-day, sixty-mile breast cancer fund-raising walk.

Discussion: Well, obviously you can’t get through this book without crying quite frequently. But the author’s prose is just so lovely, and the insights so frequent and piercing, that you don’t mind at all. Listen, for example, to these thoughts by Marion about aging:

“She had never felt the simple urgency of time more than in the past few years, as her ovaries creaked into silence and she had gone for months and then a year without the gush of blood or the deep purple sadness that came with it. She had understood that something was ceasing within her and, more important, would never start again. The cold reality of it had struck her, as if, perched on the crest of a roller coaster, the rest of the ride was suddenly, irreversibly clear. On the way up, the vista had been infinite, the time to look about sometimes agonizingly long; now there was only the certain and dispassionate knowledge that there was one set of rails on which to travel, the ending immutable and about to begin. It didn’t matter that the rest of the trip might take twenty, even thirty years to complete; the angle of the ride had changed.”

Beautifully written, and absolutely right on the money.

Evaluation: A lovely book that is a tribute to friendship, to self-awareness, to acceptance, and to growth. It will make you want to bake bread from scratch, take a trip to the beach, and jump off a rock into the water of the Colorado River! Highly recommended.

Rating: 4/5

Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons of Penguin Group, 2011

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26 Responses to Review of “Joy for Beginners” by Erica Bauermeister

  1. Ceri says:

    Oh, this sounds like such a lovely book. It’s exactly the kind of heartwarming story I’d sit in the corner of my house, under a blanket, all day reading. 🙂

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    I’m really looking forward to this book since I loved The School of Essential Ingredients. It might make me want to bake bread from scratch, but I’m sure if I sit long enough, the feeling will pass.

  3. Julie P. says:

    I started this one a few days ago but have had no reading time with dance recital week! Can not wait!

  4. softdrink says:

    Oh yay. I was worried it might be too sentimental, but since you have good taste (despite what Jim says!), it can’t be bad! I’m going to see the author speak tonight…hopefully she doesn’t read from a passage that makes me cry!

  5. It seems like such a common theme lately, but if the writing is beautiful, I am ok with that. Nice review.

  6. zibilee says:

    I loved this book as well, and think that Bauermeister did an incredible job with it. I had been wondering when I was reading if all the chapters would meld together at the end into some kind of cohesive story, but found that I actually liked the vignettes that didn’t exactly coalesce much better. It was a great read for me, and I am excited about her next book. Great review on this one. I am glad to hear that you enjoyed it so much!

  7. Sandy says:

    Hello friend. I’m sitting at Pizza Hut cherishing the few minutes of Internet I can grab, and I stopped by to say hello. Doubly excited that you reviewed this book because I so loved her last book. It was one of my favorite audios, narrated by Cassandra Cambell, ever ever ever. She totally gets relationships, and almost re-invents the whole women’s fiction thing (her and Marisa de los Santos). I’m going to see if this one is going to be on audio anytime soon at the library. Hope you are well and missing me!

  8. Florinda says:

    Since I actually like – and tend to seek out – books about women and their interrelatonships, I’ll probably like this one once I get around to it. Given that I haven’t yet read her last book (it’s been in TBR for over a year) that probably won’t be very soon, but it’s encouraging to see good reports about it!

  9. Oh wow! I’m really glad that you ended up giving this a shot. Like you I’m a bit wary of the Girls Club books but this seems like it’s well worth the effort. Cool!

  10. Jenners says:

    Everyone is just loving this book. I must read it!!

    And I need to ask you: Did you get an ARC of The Wild Rose yet? If not, I would be happy to send you my copy as soon as I finish it (will take some time … it is a chunkster). I got it via Amazon Vine and since you turned me on to this excellent series, I wanted to check with you about it. (I know I should have just e-mailed you instead of putting this in a comment but I’m lazy like that.)

  11. JoAnn says:

    I tend to avoid books like this too, but I loved the audio of The School of Essential Ingredients. So glad to hear this one is good, too. I’m considering audio again, but it may be too hard to drive while crying 😉

  12. Barbara says:

    Since I trust your judgement, count me in. It’s on my every-growing list.

  13. Marg says:

    I haven’t read this author before, but on the strength of a few reviews I have seen of this book I have requested her first book.

  14. Staci says:

    I absolutely fell in love with her debut novel and so can not wait to read this one. I just may break down and pay full price for it!!! 😀

  15. Ti says:

    I sort of wish I had picked it up at the signing. They had this book, but not her previous book which is what I really want to read first.

    She was so charming and funny. Very funny to listen to.

    BTW…we (the bloggers three) mentioned your name quite a bit. I kept referring to Rhapsody Jill and Fizzy Jill, you know…to be more specific. Oh and then when I saw those Nesbo books in the aisle I had to explain to Fizzy Jill and Wallace all about the infatuation with Norwegian hunks who can write.

  16. Margot says:

    I am almost three chapters into this one. I have already cried. Your review makes me want to plow right in until I finish – with a full box of kleenex, of course.

  17. Care says:

    Sounds eerily similar to a book I read recently (Proper Care and Mnt of Friendship) but this one might be better.

  18. Rita K says:

    I usually don’t go for this type of book, but I might give it a try, Jlli.

  19. Meg says:

    Absolutely sounds like a book that is right up my alley! I started Bauermeister’s School… a few weeks ago and haven’t finished yet, but I’m looking forward to completing it — and picking up this one!

  20. Darlene says:

    Lovely review Jill. I loved this book as well I was a little worried I might not like the second book as much but I did. It just really grabbed my heart and didn’t let go. It’s amazing how, in those short chapters, the author is able to let us into these women’s lives and then, on top of that, weave the story together perfectly. I’ll be anxiously awaiting the next book from Bauermeister!

  21. Thanks for the review! I’m really looking forward to reading this one!!

  22. stacybuckeye says:

    The second positive review I’ve read. Would this be a book that you’d recommend to a woman going through breat cancer treatments or is it too much of a downer? I’d like to give her something that will lift her spirits.

  23. Glad you liked this one! Something I really appreciated about it was how it challenged me to venture out into new things. It definitely encourages personal growth, which I love. Not to mention the great prose and memorable cast of characters.

  24. I just read Dawn’s review and she talked about how much she cried reading it. I’m going to look like an idiot reading this on the train and blubbering. LOL

  25. I really liked this one too. It really resonated with me.
    2 Kids and Tired Books

  26. Rachelle says:

    I loved this book – could not put it down so I read it in one night. Definitely recommend!

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