The first thing that struck me when I was reading Claire Lombardo’s debut novel, “The Most Fun We Ever Had,” was that when the parents of the family, Marilyn and David Sorenson, first get together, they are living on Davenport Street, in Iowa City, right about the time when I was living up the hill, on Washington. I might have passed them downtown, on Clinton Street, or sat across from them at the Mill Restaurant, where my boyfriend worked as a bartender and a singer.
That is how straightforward and realistic Lombardo’s depiction of her characters is — you could eavesdrop on them or look into their windows. This is, in many ways, Lombardo’s singular achievement. How her characters talk, how they relate, how they form their family are all so precise that you must believe in them, and you must also be interested in them (which is a good thing, because 532 pages is a lot to get through).
In 2016, Marilyn and David have four daughters, all grown, and two grandsons. Not everything is perfect, but daily events seem normal and manageable. And then there is the sudden appearance of a secret child, Jonah, age 15, the son of Marilyn and David’s apparently well-behaved second daughter, Violet, who is happily married to Matt, has two young boys and is dedicated to organizing their childhoods perfectly.
The only person other than Violet who knows of Jonah’s existence is the eldest daughter, Wendy, who was present at his birth. Jonah had been put up for adoption, but his adoptive parents died in a car crash when the boy was 4, and he has since moved from foster home to foster home. It is up to the Sorensons to take him in, and not all of them are in favor of doing so. (If they were my neighbors in Lake Forest, outside of Chicago, I would now be shaking my head in disbelief.)
Lombardo jumps around from character to character, which can be a little confusing. Her favorite is Wendy, a onetime rebel who still addresses all of her relatives sarcastically, who still is isolated, who still is irritable, but who has an underlying impulse toward kindness. The most appealing character is Jonah himself, who is amusing and observant but also a believable teen who can’t avoid trouble. David Sorenson is a doctor. Marilyn is a stay-at-home mother, the girl who was in college and got pregnant by mistake, who sometimes regrets that she gave up the education she had intended to get.
Lombardo is intent upon exploring as much as she can about the Sorensons’ lives — the chapters alternate between present and past. Various dramas play out over the year (the sections are titled “Spring,” “Summer,” “Fall” and “Winter”); others are explored retrospectively, beginning in 1975.
The upside of this is that Lombardo’s sense of drama is evocative and riveting. When she means to shock or frighten the reader, she does. One of her techniques is almost continuous dialogue, and the Sorensons aren’t typical reticent Midwesterners. Perhaps the daughters, as millennials, simply assume that constant use of the effenheimer word is standard, and perhaps the family shares an edgy sense of humor that others read as hostility. But the downside of one crisis after another is that the reader might recoil from the onslaught — there never seems to be a time, over 40 years or so, when life just moves along in a relaxing and ordinary way. Even Marilyn and David’s apparent and steady love for each other isn’t peaceful. If we had been neighbors, I would have been sincerely afraid of one of my children marrying into this family.
A novel has to have a plot and a few mysteries for the narrative to build toward. Lombardo’s are mysteries of character — what did it feel like for Violet to have a child, and for Wendy to be the one to hold him and then give him up? Why is Wendy living by herself? Who was that colleague David found himself attracted to, and what was the nature of the attraction? How will Liza, the third daughter, deal with her depressed husband and her pregnancy? Will Marilyn and David find out Gracie’s secret (Gracie is the youngest of the four girls by half a generation, observant and somewhat spoiled), and when will her mother stop calling her “Goose”?
The mystery is not whether the members of this happy family will finally connect, but how. Perhaps the clue is that at one point, Jonah reflects: “If this family had taught him anything it was that people could get mad at each other and then make up again.”
“The Most Fun We Ever Had” is an ambitious and brilliantly written first novel, sometimes amusing and sometimes shocking, but its unrelenting nature and lack of context are ultimately off-putting. The Sorensons seem to live in Iowa City and Lake Forest without being aware of their surroundings. If they were my neighbors, I would suggest they get out of the house and take a walk around the neighborhood. If they saw the bigger picture, they might be able to relax.
Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including “A Thousand Acres,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1992.
The Most Fun We Ever Had By: Claire Lombardo. Publisher: Doubleday, 532 pages, $28.95. Events: Literature Lovers’ programs, with Amy Poeppel, Kate Racculia and Steve Rushin. 11:30 a.m. Nov. 16 luncheon hosted by Excelsior Bay Books; 2 p.m. Nov. 17 matinee hosted by Valley Bookseller. Tickets: bit.ly/2xDuijr.