THE MOST FUN WE EVER HAD
By Claire Lombardo
The big family secret is revealed almost immediately in Claire Lombardo’s engrossing debut novel, “The Most Fun We Ever Had,” which connects four decades in the lives of the Sorensons of Oak Park, Chicago. But all the small secrets — from misremembered slights to misplaced bedsheets — are uncovered patiently, skillfully, precisely, in service of the novel’s central mystery: How do you love?
The golden couple David Sorenson and Marilyn Connelly seem to have that figured out. Their dedication, joy and unrelenting lust produced four daughters who share the same collective fear. “We all desperately want your life … and we all know we’ll never have it,” the third-oldest, Liza, confesses in a moment of truth.
But it’s the uptight second child, Violet, who is the source of the big family scandal: Her son, born without her parents’ knowledge, was given up for adoption and rediscovered 15 years later thanks to the pointed meddling of the eldest sister, Wendy, a dissolute young widow who resents Violet’s inability to appreciate her own luck. That child, Jonah, the returned observer of this cloistered world, is as fascinated by David and Marilyn’s love as their daughters. He stumbles on his grandparents flirting in the kitchen and pauses to examine these people who “consciously chose to talk about weeds with their crotches touching.” A very accurate description of enviable long-term commitment.
Jonah’s not much younger than Grace, the baby of the family, who is hiding out in Portland, living a lie about her law-school status and worried that she is a giant disappointment to the parents she reveres. Completing the quartet is the recently tenured professor Liza, whose own crumbling relationship is constantly falling short of David and Marilyn’s union. The only thing that the daughters have over their parents is sisterhood. Though it doesn’t seem like much fun — they’re considerate and selfish in equal measure, they do things for one another without mentioning it and then stab one another in the back — it’s theirs.
The outside world barely enters into the cosseted lives of the Sorensons. Their social lives and societal awareness are essentially nonexistent; even the characters’ jobs exist only as places where they might meet a potential marital interloper. At one point Wendy wonders whether all Asians are prim and conservatively dressed — a confusing question to ask when she must encounter Asians every day right outside her luxury apartment, on the streets of the third largest city in America.
Of course it’s not the responsibility of every novel to wrestle with cultural shifts, with politics and war, but the near total absence of even a whiff of non-Sorenson-related events over 40 years and 500-plus pages must be a conscious choice. It reads, eventually, as a deliberate and fascinating commentary on how a particular kind of moneyed white family can choose the degree to which they engage with such … unpleasantries. And that sometimes they choose zero degrees.
Instead, there are plenty of life events. Weddings and deaths, pregnancies and illnesses, ways for the sisters to measure themselves against one another as they continue to excavate the contours of their parents’ love and hold it up to their own. At this point you may be thinking that there’s no way four women can spend an entire book being obsessed with their happily married parents and that perhaps I just have some sort of older suburban couple kink. (Perhaps!) But here’s the thing — Lombardo renders that obsession with such skill and finely tuned interest that it feels like a quiet subversion of the traditional family saga, a new way for the past to bless or poison the present and an unexpected engine for the revelations about being human that she delivers so beautifully.