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Marriage Is Passionate, Not Perfect, In 'The Most Fun We Ever Had'

Claire Lombardo's The Most Fun We Ever Had probably won't be the most fun you'll ever have (I hope not, for your sake), but it's a wonderfully immersive read that packs more heart and heft than most first novels. Lombardo, a Chicago native and recently minted University of Iowa MFA graduate, has crafted an intricate multigenerational saga about the vicissitudes of a passionate but not perfect marriage over a 40-year span. Her capacious novel also encompasses the "vast hormonal hellscape" the couple has spawned — four cattily close, constantly sparring grown daughters trying to figure out their place in the world as they measure themselves against their mother and each other.

Set in the Chicago suburbs, Lombardo's book has been compared to The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen's seminal ode to a dysfunctional Midwestern family. But The Most Fun more strongly evokes Anne Tyler's explorations of long marriages in meticulously observed domestic novels like Breathing Lessons (1989), The Amateur Marriage (2004) and A Spool of Blue Thread (2015). While Lombardo's focus is on more happily wedded couples than Tyler's mismatched pairs, both writers share an interest in the forces that bind spouses decades after their "I do's."

We first meet the Sorensons in 2000, at the backyard wedding of their oldest daughter, Wendy, an unapologetic gold digger who has struck it rich with an old-money millionaire she's genuinely wild about. Lombardo flings a full deck of narrative cards at us all at once, which she spends the next 500-plus pages patiently putting in order.

The main action of this notably apolitical, all-white, all-straight novel takes place over four seasons, beginning in the spring of 2016 — which finds just about every member of the Sorenson family in turmoil. Flashbacks interspersed with the present-day chapters scroll all the way back to 1975, which in Lombardo's telling feels more like the 1950s. That's the year David Sorenson, a shy premed student, and Marilyn Connolly, an outspoken English major, met and fell in love.

The Most Fun We Ever Had proceeds in a steady march through the Sorensons' major life events to reveal how the daughters — a blindsided widow; a tightly strung stay-at-home mom with a law degree; a tenured professor facing solo parenting; and the perpetual afterthought of the family, a recent college graduate caught up in an embarrassing lie — came to the messy pass in which we find them. The narrative is filled with pregnancies (including one that results in a child placed for adoption), births, deaths, infidelities, accidents, sibling rivalries, secrets, lies and lots of wine and kissing. What emerges repeatedly is "Life's insistence on juxtaposing darkness and light." Even family interactions elicit a mix of exasperation and comfort.

'The Most Fun We Ever Had' is a deliciously absorbing novel with — brace yourself — a tender and satisfyingly positive take on family.

Overarching it all is the unusually ardent connection between Marilyn and David Sorenson. The "shining unfathomable orb of their parents, two people who emanated more love than it seemed like the universe would sanction," sets a powerful but daunting example for the couple's children. But flashbacks to exhausted, fraught times make clear that the Sorensons' relationship hasn't been as smooth as it appears. Marilyn wonders, "Didn't her daughters know that what she and David had took work, had always taken work?"

Another narrative throughline is the intense competition between the two older Sorenson daughters: Wendy, an "impulsive, compulsive, turbulent" child, and Violet, the sister who encroached on her infancy by being born in the same calendar year. A Type A overachiever, Violet is accustomed to being the good girl to Wendy's monster and is deeply uncomfortable whenever their roles reverse. They're capable of coming to each other's rescue, but not dependably. Lombardo captures this often toxic sibling dynamic with the perfect image: "A seesaw, this sisterhood, and Wendy was the jerk who jumped off early so the other person toppled into the sand."

Wendy is a terrific character: caustic, tough, difficult, flawed, self-destructive, bitingly funny — and ultimately sympathetic. She sets the plot in motion by springing a terrible surprise on Violet, whose perfect life is just too much for her to swallow after she suffers a series of unhappy blows. This surprise, about which I'll only say that it introduces another convincingly complex character, brings out the best and worst in various family members and leads to the most moving scenes. It also leads to Lombardo's heartwarming takeaway: "If this family had taught him anything it was that people could get mad at each other and then make up again."

Lombardo's sweeping family drama, fueled by power plays between spouses and between sisters, is operatic in both good ways and bad. It hits plenty of high notes, but like opera, it runs long and tends toward histrionics and repetition. A few themes are replayed so often — David and Marilyn's canoodling, Violet's uptight rigidity — that the book would have benefited from judicious trims, particularly in the flashbacks. (The year 1996, an annus horribilis in the Sorensons' marriage following an office flirtation, seems particularly endless, as David notes.)

But let's not lose sight of Lombardo's considerable achievement. The Most Fun We Ever Had is a deliciously absorbing novel with — brace yourself — a tender and satisfyingly positive take on family.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.