A review by Elizabeth Judd
"Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! Help!" said William
James. In Michelle Huneven's irresistible second novel, the quintessentially
American philosopher's fictional great-great-granddaughter Alice Black desperately
needs a spiritual and romantic assist. She is responsible for a senescent great-aunt
who mistakes her for various famous ancestors, and is pursued by the wrong kind
of men from academics "keen to sleep with a distant relative of the author
Golden Bowl to dippy psychical researchers (William James supposedly appears
to more mediums than anyone else except Elvis). Some measure of salvation lies
in friendship. Alice begins attending church, where she meets Helen Harland, a
Unitarian Universalist minister at odds with her contentious flock, and a Falstaffian
chef named Pete Ross. The three gather for gourmet dinners prepared by Pete, and
the camaraderie gradually repairs past injuries.
Huneven's closest literary equivalent is Richard
Russo: both have an old-fashioned authorial munificence, a leisurely way
of developing their threadbare characters, and an exasperated affection for
unlovable places (her first novel, Round
Rock, was dubbed a "Magic Mountain for alkies," because of its rehab setting).
Although spirituality provides the bass line for the makeshift Los Angeles community
Huneven explores in Jamesland, it's the inhabitants and the variety of
their religious experience that keep the story humming. Huneven presents devotion
in all its messy incarnations: Pete's mother grudgingly abandons a Carmelite
order and Jesus Christ, her "second husband," to nurture her troubled son, and
Helen switches her dissertation topic to Buddhism after discovering that "women
of a certain age" commonly embrace William James. "She thought she'd discovered
his contemporary relevance only to find out that she was yet another starstruck
reader who'd fallen like a wallflower for the most popular guy in the pantheon."
Helen, one of Huneven's imperfect saints, can pursue faith in bad faith
for vanity's sake but somehow stumble toward redemption anyway. By underselling
religion (Huneven casually suggests that "people who choose to believe in God
and an afterlife often lead calmer, happier and more productive lives"), this
divine comedy offers a glimpse of transcendence that's refreshingly believable.
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