Reminiscent of Anne Tyler’s novels that focus on the minutae of family relationships, The Most Fun We Ever Had is a brilliant debut novel that deftly portrays the complicated, messy lives of the Sorenson family, a middle-class white family living in Chicago. At just over 500 pages, I found it a bit too weighty to read when lying on the sofa on a lazy holiday afternoon, but it was well worth sitting up for – it is all at once tender, funny, poignant and utterly relatable.
David and Marilyn Sorenson have four daughters, all radically different with issues that deeply affect how they behave in the world. Wendy has recently experienced the death of her husband and an unborn child; caustic and funny, she deals with her grief by resorting to drinking and one-night stands. Violet is a litigator who now stays at home looking after her young children – she’s anxious, prim and hides a dark secret. Then there’s Liza, a professor, who lives with a man she’s not sure she loves and is uncertain of her new pregnancy. Lastly there’s Grace; the laat-lammetjie intimidated by her brilliant parents and older sisters, who lives a lie she feels she cannot reveal to her family.
David is a doctor and Marilyn a stay-at-home mother who always acts a bit shocked that she is a parent at all: “The thing that nobody warned you about adulthood was the number of decisions you’d have to make, the number of times you’d have to depend on an unreliable gut to point you in the right direction, the number times you’d still feel like an eight-year-old, waiting for your parents to step in and save you from peril.” At some stage, just after Grace was born, she tells one of David’s colleagues that she was having the most fun she had ever had, knowing full well she was partly telling a lie.
All of the daughters’ lives are overshadowed by their parents’ relationship – an intensely passionate, deeply loving one, which they wonder if they can ever match. Wendy tells her mother : “We’re all emotionally stunted because you and Dad love each other more than you love us… It’s not necessarily a bad thing… I’d rather be fucked up because my parents are hot for each other than because they’re, like, keeping me chained to a bike rack overnight and feeding me raw oats. But you have to admit that there’s a gradient of preference.”
The event around which the book is hinged is the arrival of adolescent Jonah Bendt into their lives. He is the son given up for adoption by Violet when she was young, a secret she has kept from all but Wendy, who now has tracked him down – I read this to be a jealous reaction to Violet’s inability to see how good her life is, rather than a compassionate act; however, relationships between siblings are complicated and I found Lombardo’s portrayal of these nuances to be particularly effective. Initially rejected by Violet, Jonah lives with Wendy and then with David and Marilyn, stylistically acting as the conduit through which the reader observes the workings of this dysfunctional family.
While relating this aspect of the story, Lombardo weaves into past, moving backwards and forwards, dipping in and out of the family members’ lives and so enabling the reader to get to know each character better. How I loved Wendy – sarcastic and funny, caring under her bristly exterior, she is someone I’d like to sit down with and have one drink too many.
This novel isn’t perfect (is any book?) – some might find it too long, though I was kept engrossed throughout. I found Marilyn and David’s passionate relationship slightly unbelievable, however a friend of mine has told me she felt neglected by her parents who were so in love with each other, she wondered why they ever had children. Violet irritated me and I couldn’t get a handle on her – perhaps that would also be the case if she were actually my sister – and some of the characters were not as well formed as others. You have to be prepared to get fully immersed into the tangled workings of this family’s relationships before committing to reading the book.
Jade Chang (author of The Wangs vs. The World – another great read) in her New York Times review rightly points out that the book focuses purely on the family in such a way that … “The outside world barely enters into the cosseted lives of the Sorensons. Their social lives and societal awareness are essentially nonexistent; even the characters’ jobs exist only as places where they might meet a potential marital interloper.”
Yet none of the above hindered my enjoyment of this novel portraying the messy, complicated lives of a family, with that strange mixture of love and hate, affection and irritation, sympathy and hostility with which we relate to those bound to us by blood.