Jamesland, the buoyant second novel by Michelle Huneven, critically acclaimed author of Round Rock, is a witty, sophisticated, and deeply humane comedy of unlikely redemption.
When thirty-three-year-old Alice Black discovers a deer in her dining room after fighting with her boyfriend, she wonders if she’s going crazy. Pete Ross, forty-six, knows he’s crazy. He’s wrecked his marriage, slashed his wrists, and done time in a psychiatric institution, and now he's being cared for by his mother, who’s a nun. Forty-five-year-old Helen Harland, a spirited Unitarian Universalist minister, is being driven crazy by her hostile church administration. Living in Los Feliz, California, the three meet at Helen’s Wednesday midweek services. Though initially incompatible, the sheer force of Helen’s idiosyncratic ministering (her “variety show of religious experience”)–paired with Alice’s illustrious ancestor William James–proves to be a catalyst for friendship and a kind of transcendence. Generous and compassionate, Michelle Huneven delivers a joyful new novel about love, faith, and a few wayward souls waiting for life to begin.
Like her critically acclaimed Round Rock, Huneven's sophomore effort explores a tightly knit community of troubled eccentrics. In the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz, a motley handful of residents attends Helen Harland's casual and inclusive services at the local Unitarian church. Helen who can't interest her boyfriend in her preaching profession, and who battles the church board over matters such as men holding hands in the sanctuary has her own struggles with faith, yet finds herself inspiring it in some of Los Feliz's other lonely souls. There's Alice Black, hot off a string of bad love affairs (including one with the husband of a local movie star) and living in a house belonging to her great-aunt Kate. The intermittently lucid Kate, now ensconced in a rest home, is still pursuing a life-long writing project related to her illustrious ancestor, the philosopher William James. And then there's crazy Pete Ross, a failed husband, father and chef now living with his mother, a nun, as part of his therapy. Spunky Helen maneuvers dinners and other get-togethers where people seemingly at odds grow (warmly and predictably) to know and love one another. More intelligent and quirky than the usual melodrama, this novel succeeds in exploring the slow and halting journey to self-acceptance. But this level of realism also becomes problematic: the narrative is slow-going, and the author's fondness for flashbacks further decelerates the plot. The theological conversations and the extensive information about William James may also be a turn-off for some readers. For those who are patient, however, this is a gentle, well-turned story of the search for redemption.
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Interesting characters, vibrant setting and moving story make for a satisfying read.