Review: A novel with recipes makes fun of church politics

This cover photo published by Penguin Press shows "Search" by Michelle Huneven.  (Penguin Press via AP)

This cover image published by Penguin Press shows “Search” by Michelle Huneven. (Penguin Press via AP)

This cover image published by Penguin Press shows “Search” by Michelle Huneven. (Penguin Press via AP)

“Search,” by Michelle Huneven (Penguin Press)

Anyone who said university politics is evil because the stakes are so low has probably never sat on a ministerial search committee.

Michelle Huneven’s wonderful new novel “Search” reveals the inner workings of just such a committee. It takes the form of a cartoon-memoir-with-recipes by a restaurant critic and food writer hired to help elect a senior minister from her progressive Unitarian universalist congregation in Southern California.

The opportunity comes just as Dana Potowski is desperate to ever find a topic for her next book. Then it dawns on her that the years-long search is likely to provide enough material for her to add to the “recent barrage of books on intensive 12-month ventures: a year of only reading the Bible; a year of having sex each day.”

But is it ethical? She decides that when the book is ready to be published, no one will really worry, and moreover, she will change name and identifying details. Then begins her secret note-taking, 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 some of the principals’ quarrels, both committee members and pastors, are as twisted and strange as what we have come to expect 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, restitution, and the restorative power of gardening, cooking, and a spiritual practice. It does not deter her fictitious alter ego from making fun of the liberal piety of the Unitarian denomination, where services can include “drum and bucks to the four directions and the rustling of rain sticks”, and one of the committee members is a polyamorous mixologist who plays Dana’s least favorite instrument, hand bells.

Like his quirky and thoughtful narrator, Huneven has worked as a food writer (for LA Weekly and the Los Angeles Times) and spent time at the seminar. When she writes about both topics – whether it’s the fried egg rolls at Dana’s favorite Vietnamese restaurant or the spiritual revelation that draws her back to church – Huneven has full control over her material.

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

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