Books October 2003

Divine Comedy

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"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.

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