‘Search: A Novel’ by Michelle Huneven

2022, 393 p.

If you’re not a Unitarian Universalist, don’t read this book. You can read my review, but don’t read the book.

I am a Unitarian Universalist, but I’m an Australian one. In Australia there are usually at most two UU churches/fellowships in each state (with one often formed as a conscious contrast in tone and philosophy to the other). Fewer than half have their own building, much fewer than half have a salaried minister and UUism generally has a low profile in a land that is largely ambivalent about public displays of religion. In America on the other hand, where this book is set, there might be multiple UU churches in a large city; most cities would have a UU church; most have their own church buildings; there is a tradition of philanthropic endowment. There is a well of ordained ministers to choose from as they move from church to church in a scheduled ‘season’ of relocations, as part of their full-time career. It is this search for a new minister that is the topic of this book: a topic that would not seem likely to reach to 357 pages, and one that would probably be of little interest to someone not involved in a church community.

Despite the subtitle “A Novel”, the frontispiece declares the book “Search: a Memoir with Recipes by Dana Louise Potowski. A Novel . Michelle Huneven”. If this is the frame-story, then it’s a convoluted one. The preface to this second edition muddies the water even further.

Yes, this is a memoir of a real experience. It is not fiction. I was on a search committee for a senior minister and this is my story of that search. Others might tell it differently. That said, names and certain details have been altered to protect identities. Several of the living have recognized themselves, although sometimes in the wrong character….Some readers- and many who haven’t read the book- argue that I have talked too much out of school, and by exposing the behind-the-scenes machinations of a church and its search committee, I have disclosed too many secrets, certainly more than the average credulous churchgoer cares to know. I believe that the more the average credulous churchgoer knows, the more responsible their decisions will be when choosing a leader. The health and future of their institution depend on it.

p. 1-2

So, accepting the conceit that this memoir is a novel, and yet somehow not fiction, the book is narrated by Dana Potowski, middle-aged food writer and restaurant reviewer. She has recently completed her last book, and is casting around for a plot for her next book. She is a long-time member of her local Unitarian Church, Arroyo Unitarian Universalist Community Church in Altadena California, with its ungainly abbreviation “awk”. It is a church set on three acres of gardens, wealthy, with a congregation of 290-plus of the “highly educated left”:

Caltech and NASA scientists, schoolteachers, entertainment types and hospital workers, college professors, political activists, artists and local soreheads.

p. 9

Although she had been a member for more than 20 years, and was a personal friend of the departing minister, Tom Fox, she was feeling jaded by her church and finding herself reluctant to go to services. However, when she was asked to join the search committee to look for Tom’s replacement, she jumped at the chance – not just as possible source material for a new book (this new book) but also as a way of reactivating her own spiritual commitment. She had attended seminary herself some years before and begun following the path to ministry herself until she realized that what she really wanted to do was write.

So she finds herself on a search committee of eight: four women, four men. Together, they were charged with a year-long project to form a short-list of potential new ministers, interview them and evaluate their sermons in a neutral church, then come up with a unanimous recommendation that would need to be approved by 85% of the congregation. Belinda was an 80 year old former church president deeply steeped in the history of AUUCC; Sam was in his late seventies; Charlotte, one of the chairs was in her sixties, gay, and three decades sober. Adrian was Black and in his late forties (and in her writerly moments Dana imagined that he might be the love interest of the story), Curtis was Filipino American in his late thirties/early forties and had been rejected by his past Christian church because he’s gay; Riley was in his early thirties, a polyamorist and aspirational bar-tender, and the conductor of the church handbell choir. Jennie was mixed race (mother Japanese American; father white), in her twenties, a young mother and agitator.

If you’re rolling your eyes a bit at the care with which this committee has been constituted to represent every possible age/colour/ethnicity/gender/sexuality combination (irrespective, perhaps, of the actual bums-on-seats profile of the congregation), so was I. In fact, there were many times when I was rolling my eyes at the earnestness and intensity with which people approached a myriad of lifestyle decisions over food eaten, relationships and issues of identity. It almost seemed like a parody of Unitarian Universalism and UUs, but if parody is going to work, it has to have a kernel of recognizable truth – and all this rings completely true, while written with a gentle humour. The book would not have been written with this purpose, but I felt as if I had been given a glimpse into the life that I would probably be leading had I been picked up and transported into North America.

The requirement that their recommendation be unanimous meant that this committee, comprised of flawed people with their own agendas, would have trouble reaching consensus. “Consensus is not just everybody agreeing” cautions an older member of the search committee, but as the committee splinters along age lines and is pulled in different directions by opposing strong characters, the decision does seem to be framed as “winning” and “losing”. At times I wondered: is this really the stuff of a whole, full-length novel? – but then I remembered just how much of our working lives (and recreational lives too, if you’re someone who volunteers as part of your community involvement) is spent finessing the politics, creating alliances, back-stabbing, and soothing the egos of colleagues. This search committee is no different, and Dana herself seems oblivious to her own strength and obstinacy on the committee. In fact, the whole act of writing the book which was ethically dubious from the start is weaponized as an act of “I told you so” by the end.

Along the way – and this is where secular readers would bail out- the search committee and we as readers observe a range of preaching/ministering approaches as Skype interviews are reported and sermons are reproduced. Dana as narrator is too invested in her own choices to give an unbiased account, but I did find myself wondering how I would have responded had I been on the search committee. Would I even want to go to this church? I wonder.

The second part of the title ” A Memoir with Recipes” raises red flags for me, given my deep aversion to books that describe food. As I was fore-warned, I just let the emphasis on food slip by… but it still really grated on me and seemed to be of a piece with the affluence and privilege of this educated, wealthy congregation.

Did I enjoy it? Yes, I did but I know that many other readers would not. It’s a bit like a Marilyn Robinson novel with its small-town, American religiosity, but with spikes. For something as mundane as a series of committee meetings amongst the everyday life of a group of flawed, very human characters, it was strangely compelling and I wanted to read to the end to find out who was their final selection. But if you’re thinking of seeking it out, go back to my first sentence before you do.

My rating: for me – 7.5. For you- who knows?

Sourced from: a UU friend and read on her recommendation.

2 responses to “‘Search: A Novel’ by Michelle Huneven

  1. Thanks for the warning!
    But you’re right, anyone working with volunteer community groups knows that political infighting is never far away.

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