Review: Search, by Michelle Huneven
We have a surprising contender for the top of 2022 list! One of my book club groups had been raving about this book so I picked it up a bit trepidatiously, as the premise really did not sound like something I would enjoy: a fictional food critic, Dana, joins her church's search committee for their next senior minister and writes a 'memoir' about her year on the committee. It sounded, to me, like it would be a bit too introspective with too little plot to keep me engaged over the 350-page length of the book.
And, reader, let me tell you - I was wrong. This book was sublime. Yes, there was a great deal of introspection, but I also couldn't put it down and read it in one sitting because I was so desperate to watch the tangles of this story unravel.
The main plot of this book is how the committee ends up coming apart, and everybody ends up at odds, over the choice of the next minister. It doesn't sound like it should be a gripping read, since there is absolutely no element of mystery in it, and yet it's one of the more compelling, unputdownable books I've had the pleasure of reading this year. Watching the members of the committee form subgroups, factions, and political parties within the broader group of eight, the petty politicking and intriguing, and how the consensus utterly dissolves and bad blood sets in irreparably was absolutely fascinating. It was watching the worst of human nature take centre stage while being expertly, beautifully contrasted with what the best of human nature has to offer. It's a book about other things, as well - the relationship between religion, culture and food; Dana's relationship with her own faith and her journey to and from it; addiction, grief, and loss; found families; the interplay between religion and community... all of it set against this backdrop of petty squabbling that makes the sublime of the religion and the community shine better by comparison, and highlights the tragedy of everybody's personal dramas in beautiful, subtle ways. In that way the first-person narration of the story worked extremely well: you got the sense the entire time that the narration wasn't exactly impersonal or completely trustworthy and reliable, and that you are seeing all of the action through the lens of Dana's highly biased opinions, but the writing is so light-touch and friendly that you can't help but root for her and agree with her and share her blind, simmering rage at the outcome fo the deliberations of the search committee.
And, oh my word, what simply beautiful, wonderful characters. Oh, don't get me wrong, I didn't like all of them for a lot of the time - Jennie is a fabulous antagonistic character; so easy to both like and dislike and infinitely, unbelievably infuriating even as you hope and pray for her redemption arc - but they were so well-drawn, so vivid, that I found myself more than once forgetting that I was reading a novel and not an actual, real-life memoir. This book absolutely felt like a book about real people, with all their flaws and foibles and moments of wondrous brilliance and goodness, and that is the highest compliment I can pay to Michelle Huneven as a reader of her writing.
I cannot emphasise this enough: please, please, please read this book. It is both delightful and literary and quietly, beautifully philosophic and has made me think more deeply about my own relationship to my faith, my church and my community. It is simply wonderful and I want everyone to go on this wild, maddening, fantastic journey as I did.