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The Most Fun We Ever Had

Review

The Most Fun We Ever Had

The length is a stopper: 532 pages. Claire Lombardo’s debut novel seems to go on forever. After a while, you feel that you’ve always lived with the Sorenson family, and always will.

But you don’t mind, because the Chicago-based clan of THE MOST FUN WE EVER HAD is definitely worth getting to know. At the center are David and Marilyn, the very happily married parents of four daughters, plus a variety of grandchildren and sons-in-law. Just be patient. It will take a couple of hundred pages to be able to tell one daughter from another, suss out the intricate weave of voices (multiple points of view are represented), and become accustomed to the author’s temporal hopscotch. In essence, she covers everything from David and Marilyn’s first meeting in the 1970s to the almost-present (2016), but not in chronological order.

The complex structure is pretty risky for a first-time novelist; then again, so is the length (from the author’s acknowledgments, it appears that the raw manuscript was twice the number of pages, and also that the Sorenson saga is somewhat autobiographical, youngest sibling Grace being the stand-in for Lombardo). But Lombardo is adept at making sure the reader doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of decades and locations, and her layered storytelling means you develop real intimacy with the characters.

The novel is eventful --- births, deaths, marriages --- but the present-day action is driven mainly by the reappearance of one sister’s illegitimate son, given up for adoption 15 years ago. His name is Jonah (the biblical prophet said to be a bringer of bad luck); the circumstances of his birth and his awkward entry into the household supply most of the narrative tension. As an outsider, this bemused teenager gives you a fresh perspective on the Sorensons: “[I]f this family had taught him anything,” Jonah thinks after making a monumental mistake, “it was that people can get mad at each other and then make up again.”

"Claire Lombardo’s debut novel seems to go on forever. After a while, you feel that you’ve always lived with the Sorenson family, and always will. But you don’t mind, because the Chicago-based clan of THE MOST FUN WE EVER HAD is definitely worth getting to know."

Exactly. The flawed-yet-solid nature of parenthood, of family in general, is the crux of THE MOST FUN WE EVER HAD. When the title phrase first appears, it comes out of Marilyn’s mouth at the very moment that she’s coping with two babies. “I just love being a mom,” she says to David’s med-school professor at a party. “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had.” Her words are both ironic and not, you realize. This “skittish, miserable,” “sleep-deprived, hormonally flimsy” woman is also besotted with her kids and husband. The phrase recurs when a much older David, felled by a heart attack, thinks he might be dying. It becomes part of their private language, their way of acknowledging that having children, despite the pain and exhaustion, is uniquely meaningful and precious.

Marriage is Lombardo’s other big subject. I think it’s hard to write a good marriage; in this novel, the Sorensons seem to have a genuine lifelong passion (not necessarily ideal for the kids, as acerbic Wendy, the eldest daughter, puts it: “We’re all emotionally stunted because you and Dad love each other more than you love us”). But there is another side, which you hear about largely from Marilyn’s clear-eyed point of view. Early on, “she’d imagined married life as a kind of prolonged sleepover,” cozy and carefree; instead, with David in med school, stuck in Iowa, where she knows no one, she goes half-crazy with boredom. Years later, when she suspects he’s having an affair, she experiences, not for the first time, the feeling of “simultaneously wanting him pressed against her and also on another continent…. How she loved him, missed him, wanted to kill him.” She’s equally wise about the dynamics of marriage, the need “to be kind even when you may not feel like it,” the “strangely pleasurable power game” wherein you balance egos, moods and needs.

David, too, has this sense of a steady marital pulse that persists even during periods of disaffection. He is a touching character: gentle, funny, ardent, and, as the only man in the house, both excluded and privileged. “[H]is wife and daughters sniffed out potential weaknesses with acute drug-dog noses, suspicious, nurturing German shepherds who could spot his oncoming head colds or emotional fragility in a way that seemed almost superhuman.”

THE MOST FUN WE EVER HAD is an ambitious novel, and it is not without problems. It’s certainly readable but doesn’t have a lot of momentum; it’s more like a series of scenes, a slow building-up of a family portrait. There are a few unresolved questions (What will happen to Jonah? Will Grace come clean about not having gotten into law school?), but perhaps not enough to lend urgency to the narrative.

I also wonder about the absence of work. Lombardo has clearly chosen to focus on the private murmur and flow of the family; still, without it, the whole concept of marriage and parenthood as a difficult balancing act seems incomplete. This is especially true for Marilyn. She drops out of college when she marries David and then, occupied with the children, never goes back. But later she finds her vocation in running, of all things, a hardware store. Yet we never know why, or see her engaged in this métier, though surely much of the equilibrium she achieves depends on having this independent other life.

Finally, in this otherwise impressive novel, there is an underlying “happy ever after” vibe that bothers me. It’s not tough enough; it feels as if the edges keep getting sanded down. There’s darkness, but it’s always relative; there are conflicts, but they’re never irreconcilable. Jonah turns out to be a wonderful guy, but what if he’d been mean and self-destructive? How is it that the characters have nothing but great sex? Why do they all, even Wendy, the troublemaker, seem to have, deep down, hearts of gold? In real life, parent-to-child or sibling-to-sibling secrets and betrayals don’t always resolve. People leave and are left. Estrangements become permanent.

I don’t think Lombardo wants to go there; I think she wants, instead, to find the romance and constancy and hope in ordinary marriage and parenthood. This consoling aspect of THE MOST FUN WE EVER HAD, this basic optimism about families, made me skeptical, even jealous at times. But it’s also the reason the book is such a sweet read.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on June 28, 2019

The Most Fun We Ever Had
by Claire Lombardo

  • Publication Date: June 25, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385544251
  • ISBN-13: 9780385544252