I have to admit that Michelle Huneven’s new novel was almost too delicious for me, even more addictive than a box of chocolate truffles or a big bag of Cape Cod potato chips (with sea salt, naturally). I know too much about the book’s setting in Pasadena and the neighboring village of Altadena, where I lived the tiny bungalow life for ten happy years. I also know too much about the inner life of congregations. And I recently soaked up more than I ever expected to know about the inner workings of Unitarianism, thanks to joining a UU church where I live now.
April 26, 2022
But rest assured that you don’t need any inside dope to appreciate what Huneven is up to. She unfolds the story artfully, introducing her own stand-in character as a 50-something food writer for the LA Times who married late and married well and who comes across as eminently sane and stable. Before getting into food and journalism, Dana—that’s our narrator’s name—spent two years in seminary as one of a tiny handful of UU students at a Methodist-affiliated school “30 miles east of LA” (yup, that would have to be the Claremont School of Theology).
In Dana’s youth she had been deeply impressed by the captivating preaching and all-around religious genius of an exceptional minister who held sway for a long and memorable time at her Arroyo Unitarian Universalist Community Church (or AUUCC, affectionately called “Awk” by its members). The AUUCC’s current minister, with whom Dana is friendly, has been there for over ten years but has always fallen far short of this illustrious predecessor in fire and spiritual depth. And this decent but unexciting leader is now heading into retirement. That’s the setup.
Because our narrator is a food writer and gardener and superb cook, her account of the search for a new minister is enlivened and enriched by accounts of mouth-watering meals, along with other meals that get a failing grade. She chronicles the formal lunches with the visiting candidates, private lunches over inexpressibly wonderful Asian delicacies with the good grey incumbent minister, and potluck suppers when the committee meets to deliberate. Dana/Huneven spikes up foodie fun by ending the novel with 30 pages of selected “search recipes,” including some real-life stunners.
So here we have a wise and witty narrator at the center of the action, joined in the search “process” (the word itself is suspect) by a cast of vivid secondary characters: Charlotte, the committee’s chair, a former congregation president and ultra-competent lawyer in her 60s; Belinda, a much-loved 83-year-old “pillar” of the community; Sam, a 70+ White guy and the “dumbest” member of the congregation’s richest family; Adrian, a 40ish Black therapist who, with his wife, started the community’s POC caucus; Curtis, a young and charming queer Filipino-American who’s new to the congregation and isn’t actually even a member (which becomes an issue when the chips are down); Riley, a disorganized techie, polyamorist, and gifted mixologist who’s always been close to Belinda; and—last but by no means not least—Jennie, a feisty part-Japanese granddaughter of a wealthy church couple who basically purchased Jennie’s participation in the search by making a large special gift just as the congregation’s president was starting to float names for the committee.
You can easily guess at least part of what ensues when the search committee gets going. Despite a year of careful preparation informed by lots of conversation with congregants and wise coaching from denominational experts—and despite advance agreement on what they’re looking for in a new senior minister—divisions emerge quickly among committee members, with the younger members—egged on by feisty Jennie—insisting that only a very different kind of leader—not a replica, even a female replica, of the starchy White men they’ve always had—can save the AUUCC from irrelevance and decline.
To Dana’s intense annoyance, this youth bloc even shoots down a young and remarkably effective White minister who’s built a thriving multi-racial church in Detroit. That candidate is too male and too full of himself for the young insurgents (Jennie + Curtis and Ryan).
Adrian initially allies himself with Dana and with seasoned stalwarts Belinda and Charlotte in insisting that they choose a candidate with a proven track record. Old Sam likewise sides initially with #TeamSmart, but Sam is basically out of it and can’t really be relied upon. The plot twist is that neither can the others be relied upon.
Under relentless pressure from the youngsters, Adrian eventually switches sides. The defection shocks and depresses Dana, who admires Adrian for his style and wit and has a slight crush on him. Belinda then suffers a disabling stroke and ends up giving her proxy to Ryan.
And in the final blow to Dana’s hopes, even Sensible Sober Charlotte—who’s been harboring a secret opioid addiction—crumbles and gives her vote to the preferred candidate of the insurgents, a stunningly beautiful former actress with a charismatic presence but no experience in institutional leadership and not a single worthwhile original sermon to her name.
Dana’s narration ends on rather a sour note, as she chronicles the multiple setbacks that the AUUCC suffers almost immediately following the installation of the flashy new minister. The place literally starts to fall apart. One picks up a slight dash of “I told you so” spite in Dana’s reporting.
But this “conclusion” to Dana’s story raises the question of whether Dana is a reliable narrator after all. I expect that Huneven wants us all to ponder this question.
Yes, the actressy candidate proves to be a complete dud; but does this make the youth faction on the search committee entirely wrong in their basic intuition about the need for a new leadership style?
Similarly, is “stand-strong-to-the-end” Dana, who freely admits to being hugely influenced by the genius male minister of her youth, entirely right to think that a penetrating intellect along with a commanding pulpit presence are the only absolute “must haves” in an effective senior leader?
Churches are complex social structures. Church life can infantilize even highly competent and highly independent professionals who, in their role as church members, may sometimes fall under the spell of an especially charismatic minister. Church members who say “no one can ever replace Rev. Dr. So & So” will often still move heaven and earth to find themselves another So & So.
Saddest of all, bright and capable church women have shown themselves capable, again and again, of a corrosive unacknowledged misogyny when it comes to interacting with female clergy. Not all church women are afflicted this way, needless to say. But I hate, hate, hate the feeling that Dana may be one of the many church people—women as well as men—who unconsciously still believe that hearing a male voice in the pulpit is akin to hearing God’s very own.