By Michelle Huneven
I am not fit for an organized religion, but if there is a church for me, the progressive Arroyo Unitarian Universalist Community Church (referred to as “Awk” by its members) described in Michelle Huneven’s fifth novel, “Search”, it could be . There’s very little God here – just (mostly) respectful exchanges of ideas, potluck dinners, and themed cocktails.
Written in the form of a memoir, “Search” is told from the point of view of Dana Potowski, a famous restaurant critic and memoirist, who has been invited to join the search committee for the AUUCC’s new minister. Despite being a member of the Church for 24 years, Dana is somewhat surprised to be offered a committee position because she has not attended any services lately. Instead, she prefers relaxing Sunday mornings at home with her coffee, enjoying her newly renovated kitchen. Joining the search committee would mean a commitment of several hundred hours over the course of a year. If she’s reluctant to apply, it’s not because she’s thrilled to be of service to her church, but because she’s just come home from a successful book tour and happens to be looking for a new idea. The search, she realizes, might just fit.
The committee, made up of eight members, is a perfectly diverse group in terms of race, age and gender. Dana, a witty observer with dazzling eyes, is white, straight, and in her mid-fifties. She entered seminary school in her thirties and almost became a pastor before becoming a full-time food writer, so she is fluent in the language of liturgical life. The main conflict in the book is between the old guard and the younger generation within the committee. The older group wants the new minister to have experience above all and the younger generation to lobby for a fresh look.
The quest is supposed to be about the uplifting of souls, but Jennie, the youngest and most annoying of the committee members, objects to all of Dana’s favorite candidates and campaigns to get her fellow youths on her side. She describes one of Dana’s favorites as a “wicked baker with a beard that covers the entire face and who wears black socks with his Birkenstocks.” I could just picture this man exactly, and it feels like an ungodly pleasure that after all the lofty claims of wanting to enrich their spiritual life, a man’s facial hair style will eliminate him.
The only criterion on which the committee ultimately agrees: the new minister must have “two X chromosomes”. Because Dana is closer to the older generation, and it’s her memoirs we’re reading, we’re being signaled to support the older group. But because Huneven is a wise narrator, and Dana isn’t the reliable narrator she seems to be at first, we eventually come to understand that everyone on this committee is an equally stubborn ego-driven pain in a body part you wouldn’t mention in church.
I enjoyed this book and found myself wanting to return to it to find out who ‘won’. However, I struggled to get the “so what?” everything. At some point, about halfway through, I found myself not really worried enough about the outcome. I followed the action, but kept it at arm’s length.
When we meet her, Dana shows no signs of regret leaving the church, so from the moment she decided to join the committee, I felt a little lost about what’s at stake here. Finding the topic of her next book is a motivator, but it’s not like she had cycled through many ideas for a new book and felt desperate. Maybe she’s hiding something from herself – after all, what a character says, thinks and feels are often three very different emotional landscapes. But Dana as the narrator looks out, not in. She reports, she doesn’t reflect. The other people around her who might be able to give us hints about what she really is like are also just looking after themselves, getting a say and getting a (free) assessment lunch once.
At some point, the committee is asked what they like about the church and what they would like to see changed. They like the sense of community. They don’t like the ugly shrine. Curtis, a gay man who recently converted from a conservative Christian church, makes his suggestion: “And don’t you think there could be, I don’t know, more religion?” The rest of the committee just stares at him. Later in the conversation, when someone else mentions God, Curtis asks confused, “So you really believe in God?” But they don’t, and what’s more, based on that scene and a few others, it’s clear that believing in God would be embarrassing. I considered at this point whether the novel actually satirized the state of modern belief (and infidelity), but it’s too serious in too many places to be satire.
It’s probably the old Catholic workers’ foundation in me asking what a church really is if anything can be done, including believing in God in the first place. This whole organization doesn’t feel like a highbrow book club, or a group class where the participants are deeply committed to their instructor and how much she inspires and motivates them. I love book clubs. I’m all for exercise. But when the book club disbands and the bike studio closes, there’s no great absence in anyone’s life. You can still remain a decent, morally upright person.
These eight very different types are looking for something and trying to find it in potlucks, under the banner of religion. There can be no one who fits all the different criteria they have put forth for their future leader – a savvy reader will know that from the start – so the quest should really be about looking for meaning in their own individual lives. So again, where is the stakes in this novel? We know from the beginning that if the search fails for whatever reason, Dana will simply return to her beloved Sunday morning home. Her marriage (her husband is Jewish and goes to the synagogue), her career, her happiness remains intact.
Aside from that, this novel has plot, character, structure and a delightful, deeply human pettiness that I think most honest readers will recognize. And speaking of delicious, Huneven’s descriptions of food are the best I’ve ever read, by far the most vivid prose in the book. I brightened up whenever I was expecting a meal. For example, “Our fried dumplings arrived, some with dark laces where their juices had leaked onto the grill.” I could taste that savory side. Dana takes her fellow committee members to review lunches, partly because she wants to know where everyone is outside of official meetings, and partly because it’s her job. I’d happily take a year of “engineered intimacy,” as Dana describes it at one point, to go on just one of those lunches.