The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
Published by Doubleday Books
Publication date: June 25, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Fiction
Where to begin about The Most Fun We Ever Had? To be concise: It’s a sweeping story of a Chicago couple who meet and marry in 1970s and go on to have four daughters. But that’s like telling someone the Grand Canyon is a big hole in the ground and not the way I work. Marilyn and David are the perfect couple to everyone around them, including their daughters Wendy, Violet, Liza and Grace. And…that’s not fake or misleading. By and large, from beginning to end these two have an enviable, but very real marriage. The novel spans almost five decades of their life together and the lives of their daughters. Who do not have the same success in their relationships.
There is so much to say about The Most Fun We Ever Had, but I’ll try not to go overboard because it needs to be experienced on its own. There are some huge plot points and these are some messy lives. Almost bordering on too much so—Wendy with her anorexia and later love for self-medicating with alcohol and sex, Liza who’s pregnant with a man who has emotional health issues that make him more of a child to be taken care of than a partner, and Grace who is living a life of lies to her entire family. Not to mention a teenager named Jonah who re-enters their lives after being given up for adoption by one of the girls. Early in the book, Liza perfectly sums up what life with three sisters is like
“It’s a vast hormonal hellscape. A marathon of instability and hair products.”
As the novel progresses, moving back and forth between the early days of marriage and motherhood, the impact on Marilyn is stark. Namely, having three children before you’re thirty, something even David contemplates
…he felt the striking impact of shame, suddenly, for doing this to her, for putting her in this position. It made him feel brutish and oppressive. He had impregnated her; he was tying her down, tethering her to a life of laundry and homework and glassy-eyed kid wrangling; he had set her up in a cramped house and filled her womb, again and again and now, again, with babies, even though she was tired, even though she wasn’t herself anymore. But he couldn’t take all the blame. She enjoyed sex as much as he did.
This is where author Claire Lombardo moves the novel from light reading to something a bit weightier. David adores Marilyn, but his last two sentences can’t help but raise the hackles of any woman. At this point it’s the 1980s. There’s birth control or even better, vasectomies. If you’ve known the toll this has taken on her, and you never had any specific intention of having so many children but just happen to enjoy sex, why is that Marilyn’s responsibility? Especially as Marilyn herself makes clear the effect
At twenty-nine, she become so staunchly, irrevocably Mom to three girls that there was no room for anyone else, and even if there had been room, there wasn’t anyone else, because she hadn’t had the chance to discover any of her other selves prior to the birth of their children.
The experience of marriage and motherhood may be the foundation for The Most Fun We Ever Had but Lombardo doesn’t shortchange any of the relationships in the novel. Nor does she sugarcoat them. In particular Wendy and Violet, born less than a year apart, are a fraught dynamic. They seem caught in a vicious cycle of resentment, lashing out, betrayal, reconciliation. Then there is Jonah, a young man whose life was supposed to go one way, but ends up completely differently, until he is thrown into the mix of a tumultuous, emotive family. There are no ancillary characters, each is a critical part of the story. And while the lives of these people feel so specifically dramatic to them, so much of what Lombardo writes feels recognizable.
Sometimes a novel can be a slice of life, but The Most Fun We Ever Had is the entire cake. Delicious and decadent with frosting that is a bit too rich at times, but still so good stopping is not an option. Much credit is due to Lombardo for being able to sustain this multi-generational narrative from the perspective of so many people and to do it in a way that embraces all of them. I’m reminded of other richly executed family sagas like Mrs. Everything, The Last Romantics, and We Were the Mulvaneys. I appreciate that, even when I didn’t understand her characters’ actions or motivations, I still wanted to know more. This is lovely reading of the kind that envelops the reader, forcing them to slow down. It’s a ‘settle in on the hammock or porch and be prepared to be immersed’ STORY.