“Search,” by Michelle Huneven (Penguin Press)
Whoever said that university politics are vicious because the stakes are so low probably never served on a ministerial search committee.
Michelle Huneven’s delightful new novel “Search” reveals the inner workings of just such a committee. It takes the form of a comic memoir-with-recipes by a restaurant critic and food writer enlisted to help pick a senior minister of her progressive Unitarian Universalist congregation in Southern California.
The opportunity arrives just when Dana Potowski is despairing of ever finding a subject for her next book. Then it occurs to her that the yearlong search is likely to yield enough material for her to add to the “recent flurry of books about intensive 12-month undertakings: a year of reading only the Bible; a year having sex every day.”
But is it ethical? She decides that by the time the book is ready to be published, no one will really care and besides, she will change names and identifying details. So begins her surreptitious 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 the shenanigans of some of the principals, both committee members and clergy, are as twisted and weird as what we’ve come to expect on Wall Street or in Washington — and the book becomes a best seller.
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 keep her fictional alter ego from poking fun at the liberal pieties of the Unitarian denomination, where services might include “drumming and bowing to the four directions and rattling 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. In writing about either subject — whether it’s the fried eggrolls at Dana’s favorite Vietnamese restaurant or the spiritual epiphany that draws her back to church — Huneven has total command of her material.
At times the novel, at over 350 pages without the recipes, feels a bit baggy. A couple plot devices 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.