Books October 2003

Divine Comedy

More

"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 of The 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.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In