In the bedroom Clara picked up the well-worn book beside Jane’s bed, C.S. Lewis’s, Surprised by Joy. It smelled of Floris. (Still Life, page 242, Trade Paper Edition)

Surprised By Joy BookOriginally published in 1955, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life is C.S. Lewis’s look back on his conversion to Christianity and the idea of what actual “joy” means to him.

The title of Lewis’s memoir comes from William Wordsworth’s 1815 sonnet, “Surprised By Joy — Impatient As The Wind”, which was written in the wake of his three-year old daughter’s death and begins as follows:

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?

At face value, a strange comparison—joy and death—but the world of Three Pines, as summed up by both readers and reviewers alike, is just that, a place where light contrasts dark, goodness exists with evil, innocence engages experience, and hope flourishes with fear.

Here, Louise describes the significance of Lewis’s tome:

“I came across it early in my sobriety. And that was a magical time, because I thought I was going to die by my own hand. I was thirty-five and I couldn’t see going through another year of life, never mind another forty years. So when I asked for help and got it through a twelve step program, it seemed — and perhaps it was — a miracle. At that time, I was surprised by joy, because I had been so dark and so negative and so afraid. Then, to find happiness and the freedom that comes from not having to drink every day and finding friends, and finding myself, and finding real joy. That’s when I came across the phrase and the book Surprised by Joy.”

And this is from Louise’s January 2009 Blog Post: “At 2 years sober we’re given a medallion by our sponsors and asked what phrase we’d like engraved on it. I thought about that and chose – Surprised by Joy. A phrase I used deliberately, with gratitude, in Still Life. I keep that medallion with me always. To remember.”

Louise also had a bench made and adorned with a “Surprised by Joy” plaque for her husband, Michael’s birthday in 2007 (that’s him reflected with Trudy the dog below!). As she says, “When I met and fell in love with him I was, indeed, surprised by joy. And he was the most joyous person I’d ever met.”

Happy Birthday Michael

Sadly, Michael passed away last year and here is a rendition of the plaque that will soon be placed on a bench in New York’s Central Park. The bench sits on an idyllic hill and faces Louise’s apartment.

Surprised By Joy

The quote below from Lewis’s work succinctly sums a theme that continuously runs through the work of Louise Penny.

“I pay respect to wisdom not to strength.”

You can almost see Gamache saying those exact same words.

Discussion Question

What did Clara mean by having “Surprised by Joy” engraved on Jane Neal’s tombstone?


Thank you for sharing these insights. You have zeroed in on one of the reasons I so live your writing. It isn’t just what the plot is doing, but also what you are offering in and under the action. I also may have to start rereading again! Looking forward to this series of insights.

What a fabulous idea for a article series! I enjoyed the food article series, but this ….. I now have to read Lewis’ Surprised by Joy.

I love the idea of exploring some of the deeper meanings in the books. I think doing this will spark some great discussions and ideas. Being surprised by joy is a wonderful way to live your life. Oftentimes we become jaded and negative. We have to learn to see the good, the beauty, the positive etc. in every situation, in every day, even in times when it may be difficult. This will help make our lives happy and worthwhile. We just have to be open.

While living with grief, I have been surprised by joy and it has always been a lift ~ like seeing daffodils in the snow.

I read this long ago, now i want to go back and read it again. I love that you are doing this, gives evn more insight into the books. cant wait ti hear about A Trick of the Light, my all time favorite

Do it! I reread the first 3 last summer and plan on rereading the next 3 this summer…..takes the edge off the wait. Because they have so many layers and the character development is so true, you will have a new experience. Enjoy!

Second read of Still Life was so much BETTER! I made my way through the series once and couldn’t wait for a new one so starting over to join a newly formed discussion group of other lovers of this wonderful series. I appreciate so much Minatous web site with the references and these discussions. Louise has indeed dug deep into her heart and soul to know such beauty along with joy and loss. Stay strong, all of you, there is so much joy to be found.

I did not know you were a Friend of Bill’s also, Louise! 9 months last week. And I, too, have been surprised by joy. I look forward to more of this.

Louise, congratulations on your had work and determination! Continue in joy as you continue to stay strong!

Loved this article. Looking forward to more insights into the themes and cultural references, which undoubtedly will bring me back to the joy of rereading Ms. Penny’s gems. Shalom.

She knew from the book at her bedside, that the meaning of transcending from life can be a joyous thing. Jane lived a simple but joyous life. Thanks for sharing, I have 34 years of sobriety.

Congratulations, Jayne! A wonderful accomplishment. I have found comfort in the rereadings of the series. And I just recalled that when I was younger- much younger- I found that same comfort in reteading the CS Lewis Narnia series. I hope we all can find comfort and continue to be surprised by joy.

Louise please accept my condolences for the death of your .courageous husband. I am grateful to you for including us your readers in the post.
I’, sober 31 years this past May 30! Hooray for all of us.
Reading these comments reveals to me why I savor and absorb the Gamach series so passionately. The books drag me kicking and screaming through dark places, as did my drinking. Then thank God they return me to the bench in Three Pines and to the gratitude and joy in my life now.
I just finished the 12th book. I am encouraged by this discussion to go back and read them all again!

Margo, Congratulations to you as well on your outstanding 31-year accomplishment! There is no way to describe that except AWESOME!

This is a wonderful piece, very inspiring. I’m so sorry for Louise’s loss. I’m looking forward to Inspector Gamache’s return!

Thank you for the great reads.

Paul Blauer
Munith Michigan

This discussion allows me to clarify for myself that the gift of Louise’s writing emanates from a place of spiritual maturity. This informs her characters and makes for multifaceted characters and stories.

Thank you Louise for doing the required prep work.

Thank you, Catherine, for your expression “spiritual maturity”. It so resonates with me and what I search for in literature, what Louise provides, what is probably the cause of her success. It also opened my eyes to what I search for in friendships and in leadership. Maybe we all do.

Yes, that is it exactly! Emanating from a place of spiritual maturity. I feel that with every tead but could not put it into words. Thank you for doing that for me.

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