By Claire Lombardo
A long, winding novel about two parents who deeply love other for decades, and four sisters who are not always perfect but who are fully human and relatable -- the perfect novel when wanting to disappear into a good book.
Claire Lombardo's debut novel, The Most Fun We Ever Had, is a balance of stories among all the members of the Sorenson family. David and Marilyn found each other at college, in a stairwell. They didn't know it then, but they each found their own person -- the one they were meant to be with, to be there for, to lean on.
Their four daughters think it's freakish how perfect their parents' lives are, how they still make out even. The reader's first introduction to each sister is how she appears to be a highly functioning, successful person. Oh, but appearances are deceiving.
Caustic, wine-guzzling Wendy hits a bullseye on every member of her family whenever she says something to them. And even though she does something horrible to the sister closest to her, Wendy also immediately volunteers to try to help. That sister, Violet, is no longer a successful litigator but is instead a stay-at-home mom trying hard to be the very model of a modern homemaker. Liza discovers she has earned tenure, but neither that nor an unexpected pregnancy are anything her deeply depressed partner can deal with. And the youngest? Well, Grace is lying about what she's really doing hundreds of miles from home.
Even though their lives are not perfect, there is usually genuine harmony among the family. It's a remarkable portrait of each character. The slings, the hurts are not high-drama moments, but instead are shown as "oh, why did you say that?" or "oh, I wish that had not happened to you" moments. Each of them are learning how to look at the world not through just their own prism, but through that of their relatives.
The catalyst for any of the things that happen to the Sorensons is the return of Jonah Bendt to the family. Most of them don't even know he was family -- Violet gave him away to be adopted at birth. But Wendy found him, and now that his latest foster family is leaving the country, he needs a home. Jonah is a delight. He's a 15-year-old who would love to be nothing but goofy. He's not withdrawn or moody; he is watching to see what happens next. He's not very socially adept, however, and makes mistakes when trying to get along.
Going back and forth in time, the reader sees why the daughters act the way they do. Also seen is how Marilyn and David, regardless of what crises have hit them, may have drifted a bit apart from time to time but have never lost the anchor that is their love and esteem for each other.
One of the more remarkable things about this novel is that a recap like the one above makes the book sound so serious. Well, there are serious feelings and a few gut-wrenching things that do happen. One event in particular, about a stillbirth, was very, very difficult to read. And there was one other thing that happened where it's a good thing I don't have the author's phone number, because I would have immediately called and screamed: What did you just do?
But Lombardo has a light touch and tone in the story. And, with the underlying goodness of each character, even if sometimes cloaked, showing itself when most needed, the Sorensons are characters I loved spending time getting to know. It's not just that they are good people. It's that they find a way to forgive each other, to be with each other, to want to be together. Lombardo regards her characters the same way that David regards Marilyn:
He was governed primarily by the part of himself that contained the love for his wife, his love for her endless capacity for love, for her optimism, for the world that she saw in which no one was ugly or evil, just hurting.
Like the ginkgo tree that plays a significant role in the climax of the story, The Most Fun We Ever Had is about how to endure, how to branch out and how to provide for others.
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