"The Most Fun We Ever Had," by Claire Lombardo. (Photo: Doubleday)
In her tender debut novel “The Most Fun We Ever Had” (Doubleday, 544 pp., ★★★ out of 4 stars), Claire Lombardo mounts a convincing challenge to Leo Tolstoy’s famous line, depicting a happy family that is inarguably unique.
The Sorensons are affluent, white and suburban — the starting point for a certain kind of literary family saga — and their relative lack of misery almost feels like a daring twist. While they aren’t without tragedy or dysfunction, they’re anchored by the healthy, affectionate marriage of David and Marilyn, still in love after over 40 years together, living in Marilyn’s childhood home in Oak Park.
For the four Sorenson daughters — Wendy, Violet, Liza and Grace — their parents’ relationship is both a bedrock and borderline traumatizing, setting a standard they fear they’ll never meet. As Marilyn observes, “There was no such thing as winning, as a parent.”
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“The Most Fun We Ever Had” takes place over the course of one turbulent year, following the Sorensons as they negotiate a series of family crises, starting with the arrival of Jonah Bendt, Violet’s 15-year-old biological son, given up at birth in a closed adoption. A former litigator and now a wealthy stay-at-home mom, Violet has ordered her life just so, only to have it upended when Wendy brings Jonah, orphaned by his adoptive parents and living in foster care, into the Sorenson fold.
When Violet is unwilling to take him in, Wendy invites him to live with her, both relieving Violet and exacerbating her guilt. Erratic and fun, loving but frequently thoughtless, Wendy is the most vivid character in the book, and her relationship with Violet is particularly compelling.
Author Claire Lombardo. (Photo: Michael Lionstar)
While they deal with their issues, Liza finds herself in a predicament of her own, saddled with an unwanted pregnancy and a severely depressed boyfriend. Grace, the baby of the family by several years, is far away in Portland, Ore., where she keeps her distance to maintain a massive lie about attending law school.
The novel alternates between seven points of view (all six Sorensons and Jonah) and two timelines — the current narrative and all that came before, a history that starts with Marilyn and David’s first encounter in 1975 and encompasses decades of family drama. This is a lot of ground to cover, and while it’s all enjoyable, “The Most Fun We Ever Had” seems longer than necessary, some of its storylines expanding the book’s surface area without adding much depth.
Still, it’s a pleasure spending time with the Sorensons, witnessing their ups and downs, their enduring love for each other. Lombardo explores parenthood and resentment, sisterhood and deception, revealing the grace and grit and hard work that go into making a happy family happy. “You can’t run away from this family,” Wendy tells Jonah. “Take it from someone who knows.”
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