Book Review: The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

The Most Fun We Ever Had
THE MOST FUN WE EVER HAD by Claire Lombardo (Published by Doubleday Books in 2019)

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

  1. Weather by Jenny Offill – ★★★★
  2. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – ★★★★
  3. Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner – ★★★★
  4. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – ★★★★
  5. Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – ★★★
  6. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – ★★½
  7. The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo – ★★
  8. Dominicana by Angie Cruz – ★★
  9. Girl by Edna O’Brien – Will not read; no rating
  10. 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

26 thoughts on “Book Review: The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

  1. Great review, and thank you for the mention! We felt pretty similarly about this one – especially the family’s problems being unrelatable and the underwhelming takeaway message “that families are wonderful and exasperating in equal measure.” Also, your point about the casual use of words like “autistic” and “retarded” (and sitting “Indian-style” ugh): I saw that language as an attempt to show how privileged and out-of-touch the characters are… but an attempt that was weird and problematic in its execution. I hope your next read is much more enjoyable!

    1. Oooh, I never considered it that way – it can certainly be read in that light. They ARE quite out of touch with reality, as we see through Jonah’s eyes. Thank you! I picked up a lot of light reads after this to treat myself to finishing it. 🤣

  2. Great review! I had very mixed feelings about this one as well. I got on a little better with it, I think, but if I’d read The Dutch House beforehand, I may have been more frustrated; did the longlist really need two books about rich, white people’s problems? 🤔

  3. I’m a few chapters into this one and, while I’m finding it a fun read, it seems quite shallow so far. Your review pretty much sums up my expectations for it!

    1. Thank you, I hope you’ll fare better at it than I have! I was too bothered by the overuse of semi-colons, italics, and dashes, especially in the dialogue, so I can’t say I enjoyed it. I look forward to your review!

  4. yes yes yes!! completely agree with everything you said. this was one of the most frustrating, and frankly annoying, books i read last year 😬 it felt like it never offered anything beyond a story about a privileged family having privileged family problems…(and thank you again for linking my review!! i really appreciate it ☺)

    1. “A privileged family having privileged problems” pretty much sums it up! They struck me as so whiny. Sure, honestly I considered just purely leaving the link for your review in mine since I just agree with everything. 😂 Really not rooting for this one to be shortlisted.

  5. I found this such an interesting and insightful review. I love domestic dramas and family sagas too, but I think you hit the nail on the head when you said the good ones are ‘skilfully depicted as a microcosm of society’. When novels tackle real issues in a poignant way, it makes for an unforgettable story. When they miss the mark, the characters can be painfully frustrating! Some of my favourites include Meg Wolitzer’s The Interesting, Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth and Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You – I’ve written a review on my blog if you fancy a read!

  6. I haven’t read this book, but based on real-life it seems like the family would have one, maybe two, members who remain childish and hold a grudge for forty years. It’s weird that all the children do, suggesting their personalities are so similar. I think anyone who has met the members of a sizable family know they’re all so different.

    1. I think the author tried her best to make them different, but where they were too similar is that they were all dysfunctional in similar ways. I find it hard to believe that not one of them is even remotely well-adjusted, despite having grown up with decent parents. (Or maybe it’s because I grew up in a relatively happy family myself and know other people with happy families, and none of them are THIS dysfunctional… Maybe it’s a matter of being unable to suspend disbelief.)

  7. Great review! I agree with you that family saga’s entirely removed from history and politics generally don’t work and usually point to characters who are privileged and ignorant of their privilege. Which I guess could be okay if the book was making a statement about that but it doesn’t sound like this is.

    1. Yes!! It’s really the ignorance of their privilege that annoys me here, and it’s just never commented on, which makes it even more frustrating to read. That’s why I feel like it’s more of a huge juicy TV drama rather than “literary” fiction.

  8. Literary Elephant

    Ah, great review! I do love a good negative review now and then, and I agree with so many of your points. I did at least find the family drama entertaining in a cheesy soap opera kind of way, but I can see how the book would be even more frustrating if the surface level story isn’t keeping you engaged, especially since it offers basically nothing else. I think I did end up marking this one down in my personal book list as a contemporary rather than literary novel because there really doesn’t seem to be anything of interest beneath the characters’ lives. And there’s just…nothing in the book to justify it being so LONG!

    1. Yeah, without the entertainment quality it was just such a slog for me! I’m glad you could enjoy it on that level at least, since it was painful to have to go through something so long that I would’ve DNF’d otherwise. It makes me sad because these characters and their dynamics have so much potential—I felt it could have reached for something much deeper about sisterhood and family but never quite got there.

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