Review: ‘Search’ is a novel, with recipes, that pokes fun at church politics | Functions

Review: 'Search' is a novel, with recipes, that pokes fun at church politics |  Functions

SEARCH† By Michelle Huneven. Penguin press. 400 pages. $26.

Whoever said college politics is mean because the stakes are so low has probably never been on a ministerial commission of inquiry.

Michelle Huneven’s delightful new novel “Search” reveals the inner workings of such a committee. It takes the form of a comedic memoir-with-recipes by a restaurant critic and food writer brought in to help elect a senior minister for her progressive Unitarian Universalist congregation in Southern California.

The opportunity comes just when Dana Potowski is desperate to ever find a subject for her next book. Then it occurs to her that the year-long search will likely yield enough material to add to the “recent stream of books on intensive 12-month ventures: a year when only the Bible was read; having sex every day for a year.”

But is it ethical? She decides that by the time the book is ready to be published, no one will care and besides, she will change names and identifiers. Thus begins her surreptitious notes as the committee — whose work is strictly confidential — begins its endless rounds of meetings and interviews with candidates across the country. The comic twist is that the shenanigans of some directors, both committee members and clergy, are just as twisted and weird as what we’re used to on Wall Street or in Washington — and the book becomes a bestseller.

Fans of Huneven’s four previous novels will recognize familiar themes in ‘Search’, including alcoholism, recovery and the restorative power of gardening, cooking and a spiritual practice. That doesn’t stop her fictional alter ego from making fun of the liberal pieties of the unitary denomination, where services can include “drums and bows to the four directions and the rattle of rain sticks” and one of the committee members is a polyamorous mixologist who plays Dana’s least favorite instrument, handbells.

Like her wry and thoughtful narrator, Huneven has worked as a food writer (for LA Weekly and the Los Angeles Times) and spent time in seminary. When writing on both topics — whether it’s the fried spring rolls at Dana’s favorite Vietnamese restaurant or the spiritual epiphany that draws her back to church — Huneven is in complete control of her material.

At times, at over 350 pages without the recipes, the novel feels a little baggy. A few conspiracies make no sense, including Dana’s attraction to a fellow committee member. But Huneven is such a clever and funny writer that readers will probably admit to her that she prefers abundance over frugality.

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