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Originally published Thursday, June 2, 2011 at 7:03 PM

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Book review

'Joy for Beginners': Friends help friends break out of their shells

Seattle author Erica Bauermeister's novel "Joy for Beginners" tells the story of a group of friends who each agree to take on an intimidating task in hopes of breaking out of their self-protective shells. Bauermeister will read Thursday, June 9, at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Erica Bauermeister

The author of "Joy for Beginners" will read at 7 p.m. Thursday, at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle. The reading will be preceded by a 6 p.m. reception sponsored by Hedgebrook, the Whidbey Island writers retreat (www.hedgebrook.org). Both events are free and open to the public (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
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Cancer finally is in Kate's rearview mirror. But her spirit remains tentative, hesitant after months of hospital visits and treatments. Despite her daughter's urgings for a grand adventure, she's overwhelmed, nervous to live too loudly.

She's noticed over the months that she's not alone. Though they laugh and celebrate around her table in Seattle, many of the women in Kate's close circle, young and old alike, are just as scared to live lives in full color, just as protective of their own scars.

When her friend Marion brokers a deal — each woman will tackle an intimidating task in the coming year if Kate goes whitewater rafting — Kate agrees on one condition: She will handpick each mission, tailoring them to heal each of her friends.

And so begins the series of journeys that define "Joy for Beginners" (Putnam, 272 pp., $24.95), the second novel by Seattle author Erica Bauermeister. As in her first work, "The School of Essential Ingredients," Bauermeister's mastery of character development and keen eye for description transform what could have been just another sisterhood book into something deeper, albeit just as soothing.

Like its predecessor, "Joy" reveals each character in a series of poignant vignettes. In each, rich detail lends an instant, almost tactile familiarity — these are women we may sit with at work, or know from book club or church, or hug each holiday season in our own families.

A tiny house protects Hadley from the world after the sudden death of her husband. Sara's life orbits around her children and husband. Daria, the potter, has built a fence around her heart. Ava finds loss unbearable. Empty-nester Marion desires reinvention. Caroline remains stuck in memories after an unexpected divorce.

"Things held on to Caroline — the ends of her sleeves caught by doorknobs, her coat in a car door, the knit of her Irish sweater snagged on an errant nail that no one had ever remembered seeing sticking out of the wall. But she had never been as good at catching, holding on to things — taxicabs, elevator doors, a husband, slipping closed and past, already on their way to another floor, another life."

The range of ages and relationships in this story offers insight into life's many stages. It's a delight to recognize the characters' growth as they conquer their assignments: Coaxing out the perfect loaf of bread; enduring the buzz of a tattoo needle; a triumphant plunge down the rapids of the Grand Canyon; navigating the canals of Venice.

"It was funny, Sara thought as she left the courtyard and headed back into the maze of streets. She couldn't remember the last time she had really looked up and paid attention to anything higher than the top of her children's heads. She had spent the past eight years looking at the ground ahead for things that would trip them, or behind for things they had dropped. The world had diminished to a height of four feet. And yet here it was, with a sky full of birds."

Karen Gaudette is a freelance writer and former Seattle Times reporter.

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