Now and then, a book appears that is so absorbing, you portion it out to yourself chapter by chapter because you don’t want it to end. “The Secret of Joy” is that kind of book.

It’s a novel with heart that explores the lives of 20- and 30-something women characters trying to straighten out their lives. With a just the right mix of tragedy and humor, Melissa Senate’s eighth novel is set in Wiscasset village.

Here we encounter, among many delights, a fictitious organization called the Wiscasset Divorced Ladies Club, “an official club started by the town recreation center” where members come and go “depending on their mood and current romance situation.”

The first dozen pages of Senate’s novel puts in motion an intriguing plot. The main character, Rebecca Strand, is a 28-year-old paralegal working for a New York law firm specializing in divorce mediation. She lives with her boyfriend in a Manhattan high-rise, and friends expect them to marry. Rebecca’s not convinced it’s a good idea, and she’s grown to dislike paralegal work.

Worst of all, Rebecca’s beloved father is dying of pancreatic cancer, with only a few days of life remaining.

Then, in her father’s hospital room, Rebecca learns from Daniel Strand a secret he never divulged to her or his now-deceased wife.

More than a quarter of a century earlier, while vacationing in Wiscasset with his wife and 2-year-old Rebecca, Strand had an affair with a young artist named Pia Jayhawk. When she learned she was pregnant, she telephoned Strand in New York City. Stunned, he hung up on the pregnant woman.

Nine months later, Pia called to say she’d given birth to a girl she named Joy Jayhawk. In superb dialogue, Senate reveals to readers a side of Daniel Strand that sickens Rebecca.

“I thanked her for informing me,” the dying man tells his daughter, “then hung up and went back to the Sunday crossword. I finished the entire puzzle, Rebecca … And then I suggested to your mother that we take you to the Central Park Zoo …” Not surprisingly, Rebecca is angry and remorseful. Then Daniel Strand further complicates her life by asking her to retrieve from a safety deposit box letters he wrote — but never mailed — to her half-sister, one for each of Joy’s 26 years. Rebecca does what her father asks.

Then, overcome with grief and emotion, she runs from her job and marriage-minded boyfriend.

“Rebecca didn’t have parents anymore,” Senate writes. “But she had a sister, somewhere in Maine. And she was going to find her.”

From that beginning, “The Secret of Joy” only gets better as two half-sisters enter a collision course.

For her part, Rebecca is hopeful. She grew up “a lonely only,” Senate writes, and always wanted a sister. In her imagination, Rebecca pictures a perfect sister-to-sister meeting, the two of them “sitting cross-legged facing each other, going back and forth about what they liked, what they didn’t. There would be a constant refrain of ‘Me too.’ “

But Joy Jayhawk isn’t ready for that kind of banter. She has more than a few issues with a birth father who left her and her mother to fend for themselves.

In a way, the novel becomes a very interesting forum for a discussion on cheating, and why it happens. Why did Daniel Strand, with a 2-year-old daughter and a wife he appeared to have adored, take up with Pia Jayhawk?

The subject of cheating is earnestly discussed by victimized members of the Wiscasset Divorced Ladies Club. Rebecca herself ponders her loyalty to her live-in boyfriend in New York, during her fascination for a Wiscasset hunk named Theo.

One by one, characters comment on the phenomenon of straying. A wise woman from Wiscasset, older than Rebecca and her friends, says there’s no one reason for extra-marital affairs.

“I don’t think anyone knows the answer, either,” she says, during a heart-to-heart with Rebecca. “Not God or marriage therapists or Einstein. I’ll bet there are as many reasons why men cheat as there are men.”

If there’s one small fault with the novel, it’s that a few characters seem too good to ring true. And the state of Maine is nothing less than idolized in “The Secret of Joy.”

For example: during a discussion with her new heartthrob, Rebecca describes her experience of daydreaming at a red light, and how a Maine motorist behind her car waited patiently without honking when she failed to start on green.

Theo’s response is, “They don’t put Vacationland on our license plates for nothing“

But that’s a small point in a big-hearted book with an ending you’ll never guess.

Senate is a former New Yorker now living in Yarmouth. She wrote the best-selling novel “See Jane Date,” which sold 200,000 copies worldwide. Her essays and stories have appeared in several publications.

 

Lloyd Ferriss is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Richmond.REVIEW