My Rating: ★★☆☆☆
The Most Fun We Ever Had follows the lives of one white upper-class family over the course of four decades. We have the parents, Marilyn and David, who are still deeply in love after forty years of marriage; Wendy, the eldest daughter, who drinks and sleeps around to cope with the loss of her husband; Violet, the overachiever turned stay-at-home mom whose perfect life falls apart when her past resurfaces; Liza, a newly-tenured psychologist who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant by her unemployed long-time boyfriend; and Grace, the youngest and fresh out of college, who tells her family a lie that quickly spins out of control. When their secrets come out, old tensions and rivalries resurface, forcing each family member to confront and to rely on each other more than ever before.
I usually love family sagas, but after reading this (and The Dutch House), I’ve realized that there’s a specific kind of family saga that I dislike—namely, the ahistorical and apolitical kind, where the family is so insulated from the external world that the characters have to stir up drama for drama’s sake. For example, a large part of the sisters’ angst here is because of “the magnificent albatross that was [their] parents’ love”. Poor little rich girls, growing up with parents who actually love each other. Another example: Grace, the youngest daughter, tells her mother that Marilyn “gave [her] a lot of attention”, which is why she’s so afraid of disappointing her parents. To this, I echo Marilyn’s sentiment:
“So we didn’t neglect you enough,” she said dryly. There was no such thing as winning, as a parent.
This is a direct contrast to the eldest daughter, Wendy, who is unfailingly hateful (and worse, performative in her hatefulness) towards everyone because she didn’t get enough attention from her parents while growing up. Maybe it’s because I’m reading this during COVID-19, but I can’t bring myself to believe that such petty concerns are substantial enough to fuel four decades’ worth of conflict, resentment, and unhappiness.
What makes this even more frustrating to read is that all four sisters act in similarly immature ways, despite the fact that three out of four of them are already in their thirties and forties. They all have the tendency to aggressively avoid their problems, and they’re all incapable of open and honest communication. Liza, for example, is living with a clinically depressed partner, but instead of accompanying him to a therapist or seeking help for herself about it, she just sits back and resents him for years—which wouldn’t have been so appalling had she not also been a psychologist. At that point I had to put the book down because I found her behavior unbelievable and downright ridiculous. I don’t get it—these girls are rich, white, beautiful, and able-bodied, and yet they’re more determined to wallow in their misery and blame their misery on each other and their loving parents instead of actually dealing with their problems.
But my biggest issue with this book is that it’s far too specific a situation to have anything meaningful to say about the ‘human condition’, as Emily and Hannah have also astutely pointed out in their reviews. One thing I really love about family sagas—like Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (2002) and Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (2017)—is that the families are skilfully depicted as a microcosm of society. Through them, we see how large, ‘abstract’ issues like sexism and discrimination affect human lives in very concrete and visceral ways over a long period of time. So I expect family sagas to be both intimate and capacious; I expect to see abstract, universal truths couched in the minutiae of the characters’ lives. In contrast, The Most Fun We Ever Had remains stubbornly on the level of minutiae. It is what it is—an exhaustive chronicle of one family’s life—and it doesn’t venture to make a commentary on anything beyond the already established idea that families are wonderful and exasperating in equal measure. And because you can take this book purely at face value, I wonder if it even deserves to be classified as ‘literary’ in the first place, let alone qualify for something like the Women’s Prize.
I had many other problems with the writing, such as the choppy dialogue and the careless and offensive use of labels like “autistic” and “retarded”, but I’ll direct you to Fatma’s review instead, which pretty much sums up all my quibbles about it.
Overall, The Most Fun We Ever Had is an overlong yet curiously shallow account of one family’s life. It did have its meaningful and touching moments, but I couldn’t suspend my disbelief long enough to enjoy them, since most of the drama generated was wildly disproportionate to their perceived causes. However, I’m clearly the minority here, so if you love family sagas, I wouldn’t discourage you from reading this book. It just didn’t turn out to be my kind of family saga. 2 out of 5 stars.
Reviews for the Women’s Prize 2020 Longlist
- Weather by Jenny Offill – ★★★★
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – ★★★★
- Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner – ★★★★
- Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – ★★★★
- Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – ★★★
- The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – ★★½
- The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo – ★★
- Dominicana by Angie Cruz – ★★
- Girl by Edna O’Brien – Will not read; no rating
- The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel – Will not read; no rating
Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!
Find me on Goodreads! | Read from March 31-April 7, 2020