Review: The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
Do not let the title fool you - this book is not fun. This book is hard. This book is sad, and at times is so profoundly, desperately sad that it feels like neither you or the characters will ever be happy again, and there were several moments where I found myself profoundly hoping that the author had a good therapist.
But, oh my word, was this book good. Claire Lombardo has crafted an absolutely dazzling masterpiece of a novel, and a family that is achingly compelling in their dysfunction and their love for each other. It's even more impressive when you realize that this is Claire Lombardo's debut fucking novel.
The story moves pretty effortlessly back and forth in time and switches around from the viewpoints of the 4-6 main characters: David and Marilyn Sorenson, a happily married couple who have known and loved each other passionately for four decades, and their four adult daughters, Wendy, Violet, Liza and Grace. The main plot of the novel is thrust into action when the baby that Violet secretly gave up for adoption sixteen years ago comes back into the picture. The main plot isn't necessarily driven by action per se, but rather the inner monologues and the way each member of the family reacts to the events that happen and go back in their memories to the way their personalities and characters were forged in childhood by their parents and the dysfunction that arises when - as Wendy puts it at a later stage in the novel - your parents love each other more than they love you.
So, I realize that I'm going to out myself as a profoundly middle-class, profoundly unoriginal and uninteresting person here, but: I loved this book because it shows how deeply fucked up you can still end up being even when your childhood and your family life is deeply, unambiguously untraumatic. I have a very healthy, comfortable, loving relationship with everyone in my family - and so did the four daughters in this book, and yet they are still all fucked up anyway. And there's something incredibly refreshing about being able to read a book that so deftly explores how a beautifully loving home can still produce traumatized adults - how even though your parents loved you and tried so hard to do everything right, they can still damage you in ways they never wanted or anticipated. Claire Lombardo does that so well, painting Marilyn and David's adoration for each other and their children, and the way the sisters destroy each other but still help build each other back up, with such compassion and clarity and perception, that you were able to see yourself in just about all the characters and know that they were doing their best even as they so monumentally fucked up. The compassion for her characters shines through so clearly that you share it even as you wince at the mistakes you see them making, knowing as you do that they are unintentional.
And Claire Lombardo hits every single one of her emotional moments with textbook perfection. The way she builds the emotional climaxes one on top of the other is so smoothly well-done that by the time you get to the resolution - which, in any other novel, would be a massive emotional moment of its own - you're sitting on the floor sobbing into chocolate mousse (or maybe that's just me. The chapter describing Wendy's stillbirth actually destroyed me. I had to put the book down and go make soup for forty-five minutes before I felt emotionally prepared to jump back into the narrative). The writing is dazzlingly brilliant, as well: precise, concise, clear, and sparing. Lombardo is incredibly gifting at finding the words that mean exactly what she's trying to say, with not a single wasted adverb or superfluous adjective (something I have been told that I need to work on).
My only quibble with this book, and it's honestly a tiny one, is that the dialogue is sometimes repetitive - and it is sometimes annoying how closely she hews to the realistic nature of twenty-first century speech, sometimes obnoxiously transcribing all of the 'likes' and 'uhms' you would hear in contemporary speech. While that does serve to anchor the novel very successfully in your consciousness, it gets annoying after a few hundred pages.
All in all, though, I adored this book and can highly recommend it. It's such a beautiful, achingly sad story that still manages to end on a sweet, hopeful note after putting you through all the fucking emotional wringers. I read some reviews that said they found it too long - and it's true that at 535 pages, it's a chunky one - but the story is so gripping, and the prose flows so quickly, and the characters are all such vibrant, fully-fledged, real, complex, people that I wanted to spend more time with this family rather than the other way around.
Please read this book. Please. And then let's talk about it for hours.