In this powerful tale of transformation, seven women set out to accomplish goals that are challenging for one reason or another. The challenge may be something difficult, frightening, or just new. The ladies agree to this during a party Kate throws to celebrate, with her supportive friends, her recovery from her grueling breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.
"This is realistic fiction set in our world --- and yet there is something subtly magical (and wholly wonderful) about it."
Kate's emotions about her new health status are more tentative than she ever would have predicted. The doctor's reassurance that all is well does not return her to her pre-diagnosis state. While undergoing treatment, she felt shut off from the world, as if she had placed a protective veil between herself and life. That veil persists now. Yet she must celebrate and thank the friends who did everything for her during her illness. They took her to appointments, sat with her during chemotherapy, held her head when she vomited, fed her when she could eat, and much more.
As Kate prepares the meal for her guests, she muses on the brochure her college-age daughter Robin posted on their kitchen bulletin board. It's for a white-water rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. Robin informs her mother that they happen to have two openings for the next summer. She would love to share the adventure with Kate, who inwardly shudders, since white-water rafting terrifies her. Kate can't bear to quell the hope in Robin's eyes right away, but she knows she must eventually.
The guests arrive, starting with Caroline, who is as familiar with Kate's kitchen as Kate is. The two share the meal preparations as if it were a well-choreographed dance. Soon, all seven women are gathered around the table on Kate's patio. It's a motley group of females who would probably not ordinarily be found together. Yet they have bonded, their lives blending together. Kate's friends include sisters Daria and Marion, neighbors Sara and Hadley, Caroline, and Ava, who is Kate's friend from childhood.
After they eat, Daria finds the white-water rafting brochure. Kate confides that she's afraid of hurtling down rapids but can't bear to disappoint Robin. Her friends suggest that maybe doing something wild like white-water rafting would be the perfect way to celebrate her health and her life. Marion proposes a pact: Kate will agree to go on the Grand Canyon trip the next summer. In the meantime, each of the women will promise to accomplish one personally challenging task. Kate agrees --- but only if she gets to choose each woman's challenge.
We become acquainted with each of Kate's friends, beginning with Caroline, whose recent divorce has devastated her. One bright spot in her life is her job at a bookstore, where she glories in her position as used-book buyer. Kate's challenge to Caroline happens to be book-related: she must get rid of her ex-husband's books --- a chore Caroline hasn't been able to force herself to face. She explains to Marion that it's not just because the books belonged to Jack; it's that they're books and they deserve a home. Marion replies that Caroline deserves a home, too. Resigned to her task, Caroline begins to purge her home not only of Jack's books but also of her marriage.
As each woman undertakes her challenge, her life undergoes a lovely transformation as she grows and changes, making this book not only a thoroughly enjoyable page-turner but also a source of great emotional satisfaction. This is realistic fiction set in our world --- and yet there is something subtly magical (and wholly wonderful) about it. JOY FOR BEGINNERS is a pure delight.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon (firstname.lastname@example.org) on July 20, 2011