The Most Fun We Ever Had was released last June, which indicates that the publisher thought of it as a summer book, perhaps something to take along to the pool. I would argue that this is a quintessential autumn or winter book, the sort of novel you want to read at home while sipping tea when it’s chilly outside. For one thing, it’s over 500 pages long, so it’s not practical to tote along with you (unless you’ve downloaded it onto an e-reader). From the orange gingko leaves on its cover to the often-awkward family holidays described inside (one Christmas is thrown into crisis when an older child hints to a younger one that Santa isn’t real), this is a book to keep you company during long, dark evenings.
Claire Lombardo’s debut novel tells the story of the Sorenson clan, David and Marilyn and their four adult daughters: Wendy, Violet, Liza and Grace. Prickly Wendy, having inherited great wealth after the death of her older husband, spends her days drinking too much and entertaining a variety of young men at her glamorous Chicago condo. Violet, a married lawyer with two kids, is thrown for a loop when the son she gave up for adoption years before, now a teenager named Jonah, reappears in her life. Liza, a professor of psychology, is pregnant by her boyfriend, a man so depressed he can barely pick himself up off the couch. And Grace, the baby of the family, is the only Sorenson who lives far away, which makes it easy for her to lie to everyone about how well she’s doing.
The novel alternates between scenes set in the present day, as Jonah’s arrival (his birth parents were killed in an accident some years before, and he’s been in and out of foster care ever since) creates upheaval in the lives of all the Sorensons, and flashbacks to the early years of David and Marilyn’s marriage and the girls’ childhoods. The complicated relationships between the siblings shift and change throughout the years as they experience tragedy and moments of joy.
I was shocked to find out after I’d read about 3/4 of the book that Lombardo was in her 20s when she wrote it. She is obviously an author in possession of great reserves of empathy and emotional intelligence, someone who is able to inhabit her characters fully, even when she doesn’t share their life experience. “Nobody’s ever prepared to care for a child full-time,” Marilyn tells her daughter Wendy at one point. “Nobody understands what that means until they do it for themselves. We’re all just holding our breath and hoping nothing catastrophic happens. And how deeply you get hurt doing that!… It takes such a long time to realize that it’s worth it. I wonder why we’re engineered that way. We’re sleep-deprived to the point of madness those first couple of years and then one day you wake up and you see the little person you’ve created and she says a sentence to you and you realize that everything in your life has been an audition for the creation of that specific person.”
This book isn’t for everyone—you have to be willing to commit to a book this long—but anyone who is willing to truly immerse themselves in a modern family saga will find themselves richly rewarded.