Debut ‘The Most Fun We Ever Had’ Brims with Emotional Intelligence

Cleverly, Claire Lombardo's novel The Most Fun We Ever Had de-romanticizes motherhood even as it sanctifies it.

The Most Fun We Ever Had
Claire Lombardo
Knopf / Doubleday
June 2019

The Most Fun We Ever Had, a debut novel by Claire Lombardo, is a soap opera for the literary set. Whether we’re talking about the resurfacing in his biological mother’s life of an adolescent given up for adoption as a child, a widow who takes to the bottle and casual sex to assuage the pain she feels over the loss of her husband, or women whose lives are irrevocably altered by motherhood, it’s all here.

Admittedly, it’s also all stuff we’ve seen before. However, thanks to Lombardo’s sensitive probing of her characters’ emotional upheavals and cerebral musings, as opposed to their scandalous behavior or fate’s cruel machinations, The Most Fun We Ever Had (improbably) distinguishes itself.

“The world as it was would almost never be the world you wanted it to be, and there was a certain pleasure in finding your space in the schism.” This notion, to which one of the novel’s main characters eventually comes around, sounds like something Deepak Chopra would say. Yet it also captures the thrust of the story. Of course, often you must share the space in question with a gaggle of children – of your own making, no less.

And that is very much on Lombardo’s mind. Indeed, the book takes its title from a bold statement by young mother Marilyn Sorenson, who will subsequently become matriarch of the Chicagoan family whose members double as this multi-generational tale’s protagonists. “I just love being a mom,” she says. “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had.”

In reality, of course, stoic Marilyn is leaving out half the equation. Years later, the following realization hits mom-to-be Liza, Marilyn’s third of four children: “Pregnancy was the cruelest evolutionary fuck-you, filling you with more anxiety than you’d ever experienced in your life while prohibiting you from imbibing anything that might calm your nerves.” And that’s just the start of many challenges Liza, like Marilyn before her, will face as a mother.

Lombardo employs third-person narration even as she inhabits the minds of her protagonists, and nimbly jumps back and forth in time – between 1975 and 2016 – to plunge the reader into their parenting and/or filial (mis)adventures. It’s a full load, as those protagonists number seven. Marilyn and David have a marriage both loving and enduring, but one that will forever remain in part the story of a woman who resigns herself to a career called motherhood. Wendy, Violet, Liza, and Grace are their daughters (they have no sons), all of whom are busy trying – in very different ways – to make their way in the world.

Let’s consider just a couple of their travails as adults. At one point, a crafty Wendy orchestrates the reinsertion into Violet’s life of Jonah, whom a young Violet gave up for adoption before she married Matt. Violet, it should be noted, informed Matt of this past episode when they entered into a relationship. That was difficult enough, but nothing compared to the kid materializing on her doorstep; after all, there appears to be “no extant protocol for how to introduce your relinquished child to your husband, or for how to introduce him to the children you’d had on purpose, the children you’d never given a second thought to keeping.” And Jonah? Having spent most of his years in a group home following the death of his adoptive parents in a car accident when he was a child, he too struggles to forge a relationship with his biological mother and her husband, his two infant half-brothers, and the rest of his newfound kin.

Meanwhile, Liza, pregnant with her first child, must contend with what her boyfriend’s debilitating depression portends for his transition to fatherhood. “Ryan was sick, and his good intentions weren’t enough to make up for the reality of it all, the hilly decades that lay ahead of them with Liza, alone, steering the wagon with one hand while the other hung on to her child.”

Throughout The Most Fun We Ever Had, Lombardo remains attuned to the inner turmoil generated by unexpected events in the lives of Marilyn, David, Wendy, Violet, Liza, Grace, and Jonah. Periodically, she brings into play thought-provoking “what if” considerations. This complements her investigation into the psyche of each of her protagonists, enhances their ability to elicit the reader’s sympathy, and further guards against the story turning into a series of crises heaped upon the members of a rather beleaguered clan.

Take, for example, the question of how Marilyn’s becoming a mother stunted her own growth even as it entailed successfully shepherding to adulthood one child after another: “At twenty-nine, she’d become so staunchly, irrevocably Mom to the 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 births of their children.” And there’s one more kid, the aforementioned Grace, yet to come.

Also, linger for a moment on Lombardo’s heart-wrenching description of an expectant Wendy’s visceral inability to come to terms with what she understands on a purely intellectual level, namely that her unborn child has already died: “She still expected the baby to cry when she was born. When she felt her slip out, she waited, primed – some biological conditioning, apparently, because everyone in the room seemed to be expecting it – for the sound of her wailing daughter.”

It takes a good while – over 500 pages of protean family tumult – for Lombardo to draw her story to a close. When she does, you can’t help but feel that she should have done so earlier. Indeed, this book cries out for judicious editing, the kind that would maintain the author’s more-or-less equal distribution of trials and tribulations among her protagonists, but lessen the overall load with which each is saddled.

That said, it’s important not to lose sight of what the novel accomplishes. The Most Fun We Ever Had, while admittedly taxing your patience every now and again, brims with emotional intelligence and poignant insight. Lombardo has written a soap opera, yes, yet one layered with searching explorations of its characters’ interiority. The undertaking is also suggestive of a conscious effort to endow the often dismissed genre of domestic drama with some heft, something the author achieves handily.

RATING 6 / 10