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THE DELIGHT OF BEING ORDINARY

A ROAD TRIP WITH THE POPE AND THE DALAI LAMA

Lucid, unpretentious fiction spotlighting the drama of trying to make the divine part of our everyday lives.

Another genre-defying installment in Merullo’s engaging series of seriocomic religious novels (Dinner with Buddha, 2015, etc.).

As the subtitle signals, the leaders of two world religions are our guides on this “road trip,” reluctantly accompanied by Pope Francis’ cousin and First Assistant Paolo. He has plenty of enemies in the Vatican bureaucracy and is not anxious to give them more ammunition by facilitating his cousin’s desire for “an unofficial vacation” with the visiting Dalai Lama. This requires the help of Paolo’s estranged wife, Rosa, conveniently the proprietor of a chain of haircutting and makeup salons; she not only crafts their disguises, but voices feminist, secularist doubts about Catholicism and Buddhism while driving a borrowed Maserati with a hair-raising recklessness that alarms her cautious spouse almost more than her challenges to organized religion. Drawing on his apprenticeship as a thriller writer (A Russian Requiem, 1993), Merullo leavens the spiritual questioning with a sharp portrait of emotional and sexual tensions between Paolo and Rosa, plus escalating suspense after news reports cast the disappearance as a kidnapping and Paolo as the perpetrator. The quartet heads toward Lake Como, pausing along the way for biblically-tinged encounters with a shepherd, a prostitute, and a world-weary old movie star wondering why wealth and sex haven’t made him happy. Admirers of previous volumes will recognize Merullo’s knack for depicting goodness without treacle in his deft portraits of the pope and the Dalai Lama, and a La Dolce Vita–esque party scene spotlights his ability to discern humanity in the most decadent circumstances. There is a bit too much plot and too few moments of the transcendent serenity that formed the most beautiful passages in The Vatican Waltz (2013) and the Buddha trilogy. Nonetheless, it’s both moving and unnerving when key characters from those earlier novels reappear at a climactic encounter forecast by the holy men’s dreams to suggest that there may be spiritual hope for our battered world.

Lucid, unpretentious fiction spotlighting the drama of trying to make the divine part of our everyday lives.

Pub Date: April 11, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-385-54091-9

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 26, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2017

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THE MOST FUN WE EVER HAD

Characters flip between bottomless self-regard and pitiless self-loathing while, as late as the second-to-last chapter, yet...

Four Chicago sisters anchor a sharp, sly family story of feminine guile and guilt.

Newcomer Lombardo brews all seven deadly sins into a fun and brimming tale of an unapologetically bougie couple and their unruly daughters. In the opening scene, Liza Sorenson, daughter No. 3, flirts with a groomsman at her sister’s wedding. “There’s four of you?” he asked. “What’s that like?” Her retort: “It’s a vast hormonal hellscape. A marathon of instability and hair products.” Thus begins a story bristling with a particular kind of female intel. When Wendy, the oldest, sets her sights on a mate, she “made sure she left her mark throughout his house—soy milk in the fridge, box of tampons under the sink, surreptitious spritzes of her Bulgari musk on the sheets.” Turbulent Wendy is the novel’s best character, exuding a delectable bratty-ness. The parents—Marilyn, all pluck and busy optimism, and David, a genial family doctor—strike their offspring as impossibly happy. Lombardo levels this vision by interspersing chapters of the Sorenson parents’ early lean times with chapters about their daughters’ wobbly forays into adulthood. The central story unfurls over a single event-choked year, begun by Wendy, who unlatches a closed adoption and springs on her family the boy her stuffy married sister, Violet, gave away 15 years earlier. (The sisters improbably kept David and Marilyn clueless with a phony study-abroad scheme.) Into this churn, Lombardo adds cancer, infidelity, a heart attack, another unplanned pregnancy, a stillbirth, and an office crush for David. Meanwhile, youngest daughter Grace perpetrates a whopper, and “every day the lie was growing like mold, furring her judgment.” The writing here is silky, if occasionally overwrought. Still, the deft touches—a neighborhood fundraiser for a Little Free Library, a Twilight character as erotic touchstone—delight. The class calibrations are divine even as the utter apolitical whiteness of the Sorenson world becomes hard to fathom.

Characters flip between bottomless self-regard and pitiless self-loathing while, as late as the second-to-last chapter, yet another pleasurable tendril of sisterly malice uncurls.

Pub Date: June 25, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-54425-2

Page Count: 544

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

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WE WERE THE LUCKY ONES

Too beholden to sentimentality and cliché, this novel fails to establish a uniquely realized perspective.

Hunter’s debut novel tracks the experiences of her family members during the Holocaust.

Sol and Nechuma Kurc, wealthy, cultured Jews in Radom, Poland, are successful shop owners; they and their grown children live a comfortable lifestyle. But that lifestyle is no protection against the onslaught of the Holocaust, which eventually scatters the members of the Kurc family among several continents. Genek, the oldest son, is exiled with his wife to a Siberian gulag. Halina, youngest of all the children, works to protect her family alongside her resistance-fighter husband. Addy, middle child, a composer and engineer before the war breaks out, leaves Europe on one of the last passenger ships, ending up thousands of miles away. Then, too, there are Mila and Felicia, Jakob and Bella, each with their own share of struggles—pain endured, horrors witnessed. Hunter conducted extensive research after learning that her grandfather (Addy in the book) survived the Holocaust. The research shows: her novel is thorough and precise in its details. It’s less precise in its language, however, which frequently relies on cliché. “You’ll get only one shot at this,” Halina thinks, enacting a plan to save her husband. “Don’t botch it.” Later, Genek, confronting a routine bit of paperwork, must decide whether or not to hide his Jewishness. “That form is a deal breaker,” he tells himself. “It’s life and death.” And: “They are low, it seems, on good fortune. And something tells him they’ll need it.” Worse than these stale phrases, though, are the moments when Hunter’s writing is entirely inadequate for the subject matter at hand. Genek, describing the gulag, calls the nearest town “a total shitscape.” This is a low point for Hunter’s writing; elsewhere in the novel, it’s stronger. Still, the characters remain flat and unknowable, while the novel itself is predictable. At this point, more than half a century’s worth of fiction and film has been inspired by the Holocaust—a weighty and imposing tradition. Hunter, it seems, hasn’t been able to break free from her dependence on it.

Too beholden to sentimentality and cliché, this novel fails to establish a uniquely realized perspective.

Pub Date: Feb. 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-399-56308-9

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Nov. 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2016

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