As I was reading Joy for Beginners, I got thinking about the power of friendship, how the subtle effects of peer pressure can move us in positive ways no matter what our age. In this beautifully written novel, Erica Bauermeister illuminates the lives of a group of individuals, this time a cadre of women friends, and spotlights the way in which they encourage one another to overcome numerous emotional barriers.
It was no coincidence (well, perhaps it was) that the theme of friendship stood out for me. Yesterday, I met two long time blogging friends in person for the first time, and was so pleased to find that we were just as sympatico in person as we are in print. Although our paths might never have crossed had it not been for the magic of the internet (thank you, Al Gore??) we found more common ground than I ever expected. They each inspire me, and as we talked I found myself thinking about my future plans in ways completely new and different.
Of course, the concerns of women of a certain age overlap all over the place. Bauermeister delves masterfully into those concerns in this book. It opens at a celebratory dinner for one of the group who has recovered from breast cancer. Kate decides, in honor of her new lease on life, to do something she’s always been afraid of doing. She passes this challenge along to the other five women in the group, and they accept with varying degrees of wariness. For the twist of Kate’s challenge is that she will pick the thing each of her friend’s must tackle, a thing they’ve sworn never to do.
While Kate’s challenge is physical – a white water rafting trip – not everyone of the women will be so athletically challenged. Caroline, recently divorced book store owner, is asked to dispose of all the books her ex-husband left behind when he moved out to start a new life. Daria, a sculptor who loves the feel of clay under her hands, is to mold dough into loaves of bread. Sara, a young mother, completely devoted to her children and family, is challenged to take a trip abroad all by herself. Hadley, a young widow, is to clear out the wild, unruly garden in which she’s hidden herself away. And Marion, at age 55 on the “tipping point” of her life, is to get the tatoo she’s always secretly wanted.
In prose elegant and rich, Bauermeister tells each of the women’s stories in turn. As we watch them take up their challenges we learn the reasons behind Kate’s choice for each woman, why these particular acts are so meaningful. As for Kate herself, the rafting trip is the icing on the cake of her recovery, dispelling any lingering fears she might have about leaping into her future with arms spread wide.
Like The School of Essential Ingredients (Bauermeister’s first novel), Joy for Beginners speaks to the power of relationships, and the ways their enrich our lives. It was inspiring, touching, and a joy to read.