Review: A novel with recipes pokes fun at church politics

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“Research”, by Michelle Huneven (Penguin Press) Whoever said college politics is vicious because the stakes are so low probably…

“Search”, by Michelle Huneven (Penguin Press)

Whoever said college politics is vicious because the stakes are so low has probably never been on a departmental hiring committee.

Michelle Huneven’s charming new novel, “Search,” reveals the inner workings of such a committee. It takes the form of a comedic memoir with recipes from a restaurant critic and food writer enlisted to help choose a senior minister for his progressive Unitarian Universalist congregation in Southern California.

The opportunity presents itself just as Dana Potowski is desperate to ever find a subject for her next book. Then it occurs to her that the year-long research is likely to provide enough material for her to add to “the recent wave of intensive 12-month business books: a year to read only the Bible ; a year of having sex every day.

But is it ethical? She decides that by the time the book is ready for publication no one will really care and besides that she will change the names and identifying details. Thus begins his surreptitious note-taking as the committee – whose work is strictly confidential – begins its endless series of meetings and interviews with candidates across the country. The comedic twist is that the shenanigans of some of the principals, committee members, and clergy are as twisted and bizarre as we’d expect on Wall Street or Washington — and the book becomes a bestseller.

Fans of Huneven’s previous four novels will recognize familiar themes in “Search,” including alcoholism, recovery, and the restorative power of gardening, cooking, and spiritual practice. That doesn’t stop his fictional alter ego from poking fun at the liberal pieties of the Unitarian denomination, where services can include “drumming and bowing in the four directions and rattling rain sticks” and one of the committee members is a polyamorous mixologist who plays Dana’s least favorite instrument, the bells.

Like its wry and thoughtful narrator, Huneven worked as a food writer (for LA Weekly and the Los Angeles Times) and spent time in seminary. Writing about either topic—whether it’s fried spring rolls at Dana’s favorite Vietnamese restaurant or the spiritual epiphany that brings her back to church—Huneven is totally in command of her material.

Sometimes the novel, at over 350 pages without the recipes, feels a bit baggy. A few plot devices go nowhere, including Dana’s attraction to another committee member. But Huneven is such a smart and funny writer that readers will likely give her a pass for choosing abundance over austerity.

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