The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

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.

Most Fun

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.







The Nix by Nathan Hill

This book was an assault on the senses, a whirlwind tour of modern-day America, warts and all – social media, social narcissism, radical politics, political correctness, gaming addiction, friendship, loneliness, childhood grief, mother-issues, absent fathers, all thrown together in one huge debut novel. It was a roller-coaster of a read, switching rapidly between characters and time periods, at once serious and then very funny, and it is very, very worth reading.

the nix cover

Samuel Andreson-Anderson is a literature professor in his mid-30s, stressed by his life and work, obsessed with online gaming (in particular, a game called ‘World of Elfquest’) and unaware of the viral sensation of the moment: a middle-aged woman pelting a presidential-candidate politician (Governor Packer) with stones. When he receives a call from her lawyer, he finds out that the “Packer-Attacker’ is none other than his mother. The lawyer is phoning to ask Samuel to write a letter attesting to her good character – a problem for Samuel in that his mother walked out when he was 11 and he hasn’t seen her since.

Samuel had been a one-book wonder in his early 20s, had been given a handsome advance by his publishers and had never produced another word. In lieu of having to pay back the advance, Samuel suggests he write an expose on his mother instead, and this is how Samuel reunites with his mother and learns the story of her life, particularly her student protest days. In learning about her, we also learn about Samuel growing up, his friendships and first love, so well captured by Hill.

Yet … this small synopsis reveals very little about the depth and breadth of this book. A chaos of other characters exists within it, all vying for attention, some capturing it more than others. I liked Pwnage, the online gamer who games himself nearly to death, playing a plethora of different avatars in World of Elfquest; I loathed but had to laugh at Laura, Samuel’s student who was caught plagiarising a paper and mounts a defence full of buzzwords – Samuel’s accusation, for example, triggered negative feelings of stress and vulnerability in her, and she hints at sexual abuse. As is symptomatic of so many politically-correct administrations now,  Laura ends up graduating cum laude and Samuel gets fired.


This book is a vast, Big Novel and a biting satire of life in America. Yes, it’s long and perhaps it should have been tightened up, but I enjoyed it and hope there’s more to come from Hill. Seeing that he looks young enough to be my son and, with the success of this, his first novel, I’m sure there will be.




Birdseye by Maire Fisher

This is Maire Fisher’s first novel and I have been waiting for it for ten years. I know Maire, you see, and have watched her mold her writing in those brief moments she has managed to snatch out of her busy life. Although she is a friend of mine, I must assure you that I am not just giving this a positive review because of the friendship. This is truly a very readable, likeable novel that I would have read in one sitting if I had had the time.

Birdseye coverThe main character is Bird, the youngest of five children in a family that lives in an old mansion (called Marchbanks) on the cliffs above a Cape Town seaside town. On the top floor of the house lives Ma Bess, Bird’s grandmother, who never comes downstairs yet rules Marchbanks from above. She is a nasty old tyrant, reminiscent of Miss Havisham, who is beastly to all and sundry who venture into her dark bedroom. The children know all about their parents lives and love hearing about how their father wooed their mother, yet they know nothing about Ma Bess and why she lives a reclusive life.

Soon after the book starts, Bird’s 10-year-old twin brothers go missing and, in her refusal to believe that her brothers have gone forever, Bird starts a diary in which she tells her brothers what’s going on in the family so they don’t miss out it. This literary device can go horribly wrong and become tedious, but in this novel it works well and becomes a credible source through which we learn about the family – Bird has an all-seeing eye that reveals the humour, vulnerabilities and ultimately the truths about this complicated family. Maire Fisher

One of the things that I liked about this novel is that Fisher never shies away from the nasty side of life. It would be easy for her to gloss over the boys’ disappearance and to bring them back to the family for a happy ending, but she doesn’t. This gives a balance to the story and makes it more like life – filled with humour, pathos, tragedy, love and loss.

What makes this novel so delightful is, not only is it set in Cape Town, but it has a wonderfully authentic young narrator who brings a freshness to the prose. Writing from a child’s point of view is never easy – bringing in the naivety, vulnerability and honesty of a young character – and sometimes authors get it wrong, but Fisher maintains the girl’s voice throughout and by the end of the book, I wished I could hear more from her.

May we be forgiven by AM Homes


I haven’t read any other books by AM Homes who made a name for herself with her novel The End of Alice. I will read more by her, however, since I have read May We Be Forgiven. It is a read that starts on a roller-coaster ride of horrific events and ends up as a depiction of the tenuous strands of communication that keep us working as families and as a society. 

At the start of the novel, we meet Harold Silver having Thanksgiving dinner at his brother, George’s, house. George on the surface has it all – prosperous job, beautiful wife, two adorable children, yet Harold shows us how disconnected they really are. Harold lusts after Jane, the children sit and play on their small screens during the meal and George shovels food into his mouth, bombastic. Jane gives Harold a long passionate kiss in the kitchen – ‘The kiss was serious, wet and full of desire. It was terrifying and unexpected‘. 

A couple of hours later, Harold gets a phone call to fetch George from the police station. We never get the details of the car accident, but George has killed people. He get put in a psyche ward in hospital and, with him there, Harold stays with Jane in her house. When George gets discharged, he comes home to find Harold in bed with Jane and kills Jane with a lamp. 

All awful, yes, but told with a delicious dark humour that kept me smiling through the depiction of dreadful events. After this climactic beginning, I began to wonder where on earth the book could go. It slows down after this, yet retains its dark humour, focusing on Harold’s life in which numerous bizarre events happen.  He moves into George’s house, adopts his children and has to learn the delicacies of parenting  grieving teenagers, takes on the dog, loses his wife. He explores internet dating, he takes the children to South Africa for Nate’s bar mitzvah, has two grandparents move into his house, takes custody of the child whose parents George killed. 

The pace slows down and the writing becomes more reflective, focusing subtley on the disconnected relationships around him. It’s a curious read, one I was fascinated by even if sometimes I had to reign in my disbelief at the plot. 


Daughters of Jerusalem by Charlotte Mendelson

Charlotte Mendelson’s skill at portraying the undercurrents running beneath a family’s daily routines is superb. In Daughters of Jerusalem, she tells the story of the Lux family, who live a normal academic type of life – the father, a professor, the mother a translator, the elder daughter brainy and serious, the younger one pretty and demanding. 

But beneath this facade of normality, emotions and secrets brew and bubble until they have to spill over and break open the fragile security of the nuclear family. Jean, the mother, is bored of her life, she is sick of Oxford, hates the town and its inhabitants, and badly wants to get away. An unexpected declaration from a friend gives her a new escape from her life and in her obsession, she ignores her family.

Victor, the father, appears to be a typical absent-minded professor, yet he is insecure in his post and is desperate to be chosen to give the prestigious Spenser memorial lecture.

Eve, the elder daughter, is exquisitely portrayed as a teenager full of self-hatred and anger at the world. She is ignored in the main by her parents, who concentrate on trying to appease the younger daughter, Phoebe, and Eve resorts to desperate measures to impress her parents, like asking her father to teach her ancient Greek, or give her books on French art. She is a lonely, unhappy teenager, who cuts herself or pricks herself with her mother’s needles to be able to feel something and who plots the demise of her seemingly charmed sister.

Phoebe, the younger daughter, is flirtatious and demanding, wants attention all the time, wants a pony, gets what she wants – but she is not happy, either. She is a ‘dunce’ in an extremely clever family and she secretly drinks and takes drugs to seek distraction from family life. 

The story crescendoes when Victor’s nemesis, Raymond Snow, appears in Oxford and in some way, each member of the Lux family is affected by him. He is a noxious man, yet charming and a perfect antagonist.

The author

Mendelson description of the character’s inner lives is brutal – she doesn’t pretty up any of it. She writes what many of us have thought, but would never say out loud. She depicts familial relationships in as honest a way as possible with all the vicious undercurrents and petty hatreds that suffuse families. Reviews talk about the Lux family being dysfunctional, yet I believe so many families function with similar pathologies – they are just never exposed until a crisis occurs.

Mendelson has written two other books and her fourth is being publishing in August this year. I look forward to it immensely.


Diplomatic Baggage by Brigid Keenan

This book was published in 2006, so it isn’t right up there on the Exclusives New Arrivals shelves. It’s in my book club and I had ignored it for a while because it has a really silly, chick-lit cover and has a shout from Joanna Lumley saying ‘Fabulous’, which didn’t sound very literary. Others in my book club had said it was great, about a woman travelling around the world with her husband, a British diplomat. It sounded a bit boring to me, a kind of personal travelogue (which I can find very irritating and pretentious).

This book is FABULOUS, just as Joanna Lumley said. It is one of the funniest books I’ve read in years. I don’t laugh out loud at books, but this one had me snorting in an embarrassing way. (I was reading lying around the pool at Club Med, where there were lots of people close by me. I think I was the only single person at Club Med and I suspect people started avoiding me after my maniacal laughter by the pool.)

Brigid Keenan was a successful, glamorous London fashion journalist who married a diplomat. She says “…quite how I, a sophisticated Woman’s Editor of the Observer, could ever marry this shy, desert booted adventurer.. .was quite beyond me.” But she did and straight away he got sent to Nepal. She stayed a while as editor at the Observer (it was a new job), but then went to join him in Kathmandu, so giving up her life as a career journalist and becoming a diplomatic wife instead.

And so the book carries on, covering her thirty years as a wife of a diplomat, living in stranger and stranger places, from Nepal to Ghana to Barbados and Kazakhstan. Just as she gets used to one place and develops friends, they move. She arrives at each new country, usually unable to speak to the staff and, because they are the only people she knows initially, she has to develop relationships with them, all of whom are weird and wonderful.

I love her, I’ve decided, because she admits to being useless at most things, such as organising dinner parties or diplomatic get-togethers. She doesn’t know how to fill her days when she arrives in new countries and finds herself phoning her husband ten times a day until he gets irritated. She’s a normal person, a you and a me (I’m presuming you’re like me).

She describes the most wonderful characters, most of them her staff members , and her relationships with them. She describes the friends she makes in each new country; she describes how her daughters have to go off to boarding school in England and how dealing with rebellious teenagers from afar is very difficult.

There is far too much and too many places and characters to go into this book in depth, but I have to just show you a bit of the first page because it still makes me laugh. She describes how she received a letter one day that said, “Dear Ms Keenan, I want to tell you how much I admire your courage and strength and resilience.’ She writes, “It went on in this vein for a while and I was glowing with satisfaction: here at last was someone who understood the sacrifices we ex-pat wives make. But then the author asked for a signed photo, which seemed a touch over the top, even to me, and then he mentioned my ordeal in Beirut, and I realised the letter had been delivered to the wrong Keenan. The praise was intended (quite rightly) for Mr Brian Keenan, the hostage, and not for Ms Brigid Keenan the trailing spouse. Glumly I sent it on to Mr Keenan.”

That sets the tone for the book. I found it very funny, yet also poignant and an intimate account of her life. Reading it was like she was my best friend telling me her story over coffee (or probably gin and tonics).