How do people live in this world? is a question that seems to hover, alongside the Hollywood sign, over the neighborhood of Los Feliz. Certainly Pete Ross wonders as much, his run as a successful chef, husband, and father having imploded so spectacularly as to land him back in the fraught care of his mother. Similarly, Alice Black's life-hinging as it does on a married boyfriend-is yet pending, and Helen Harland's ministry has thus far failed to enchant her new congregants. Meanwhile, at the retirement home down the street, Alice's aunt Kate lives in a world whose most vivid presence is her distinguished ancestor William James.
Each of them, then, is trying to divine who or what is both missing and essential. They encounter one another-and several significant others besides-at Helen's midweek service, and amidst the quotidian tumult their particular desires gradually dovetail in a quest not just for romance and friendship but also for deeper meaning in what one of them calls "the variety show of religious experience."
Hilarious, surprising, and powerfully engaging, Jamesland displays Michelle Huneven's subtle understanding of our steadfast hopes and irregular impulses, a humane comedy she shapes with-as the Los Angeles Times wrote of her first novel-"moral nerve, sharp wit, and uncommon generosity."
Michelle Huneven received a Whiting Writers' Award in 2002, and has also won a GE Younger Writers Award in Fiction and a James Beard Award. She is presently a restaurant reviewer for the LA Weekly. Her first novel, Round Rock, was named a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. She lives in Altadena, California.
Like her critically acclaimed Round Rock, Huneven's sophomore effort explores a tightly knit community of troubled eccentrics. In the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz, a motley handful of residents attends Helen Harland's casual and inclusive services at the local Unitarian church. Helen-who can't interest her boyfriend in her preaching profession, and who battles the church board over matters such as men holding hands in the sanctuary-has her own struggles with faith, yet finds herself inspiring it in some of Los Feliz's other lonely souls. There's Alice Black, hot off a string of bad love affairs (including one with the husband of a local movie star) and living in a house belonging to her great-aunt Kate. The intermittently lucid Kate, now ensconced in a rest home, is still pursuing a life-long writing project related to her illustrious ancestor, the philosopher William James. And then there's crazy Pete Ross, a failed husband, father and chef now living with his mother, a nun, as part of his therapy. Spunky Helen maneuvers dinners and other get-togethers where people seemingly at odds grow (warmly and predictably) to know and love one another. More intelligent and quirky than the usual melodrama, this novel succeeds in exploring the slow and halting journey to self-acceptance. But this level of realism also becomes problematic: the narrative is slow-going, and the author's fondness for flashbacks further decelerates the plot. The theological conversations and the extensive information about William James may also be a turn-off for some readers. For those who are patient, however, this is a gentle, well-turned story of the search for redemption.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 13, 2004
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Excerpt from Jamesland by Michelle Huneven
Alice lived in her great-aunt's large bungalow on Wren Street in a desirable neighborhood known as Los Feliz. A hundred and fifty years before, Corporal Jose Vicente Feliz was awarded a Spanish land grant for his role in civilizing the unruly new pueblo of Los Angeles. Rancho Los Feliz--or the Happy Farm as it was often called--was a small, wealthy fiefdom with two thousand acres of mountainous wooded terrain teeming with game, a thousand more in flat arable fields and pastureland, and several miles of riverbed. Corporal Feliz enjoyed this windfall for eight short years. His savvy widow, Dona Verdugo, remarried and held on for decades, establishing legal title to the land once Mexico gained independence from Spain. Her heirs were less tenacious; several daughters sold their holdings at a dollar per acre, and the primary heir, Antonio, bequeathed his major holding to the family lawyer.
Today, the mountainous area is more or less intact as Griffith Park, but the rest of the Happy Farm went the way of most Southland ranchos: subdivided again and again into residential home sites.
In 1919, an Arts and Crafts architect built half a dozen homes in the lower hills of the district. 432 Wren Street was a four-bedroom, three-bath bungalow set deep in a double lot; its selling points included river stone and clinker brick masonry, teak wainscoting sanded to a skinlike smoothness, cedar-lined closets, large porches--one of them for sleeping--and a two-car garage. The kitchen was unusually, gloriously large--the architect's mother talked him into this as well as a potting shed and wood-lath greenhouse. 432 sold to a prosperous young couple from Milwaukee, who raised three children there before selling it in 1946 to Alice Black's great-aunt.
When Aunt Kate made her offer on the house, there was consternation at the bank. Here was a single twenty-five-year-old woman from San Francisco intending to live alone in a family-sized residence at a time when there was an acute housing shortage for returning GIs. Thousands of these GIs, in fact, were living with their wives and young children not two miles from Wren Street in tin-roofed Quonset huts in Griffith Park. Still, if the truth be told, few if any of the families could afford the Wren Street house, and Kate Gordon could; she had both an independent income and a teaching position, so ultimately the bank had no good reason to turn her down.
Kate did not live alone for long. No sooner had she filled the rooms with furniture than she drove up to Palo Alto, sprang her older brother Walter from a private sanitarium and brought him south to live with her.
Some years before, in his mid-twenties, newly married and teaching political philosophy at Berkeley, Walter Gordon lost his ability to think clearly or tend to himself in a responsible manner. The diagnosis was dementia praecox. Though his parents tried caring for him, he exhausted them with his wild talk until, in the end, they had to institutionalize him. By the time Kate signed his release, he'd found an outlet for his most insistent energies in gardening and happily transferred his talents to Wren Street, turning the prosaic lawn and barbered shrubbery into a densely wooded private botanical garden.
Except for short stints back at the sanitarium for "stabilization," or when Kate went traveling, he lived with his sister for forty years. Walter remained tractable and pleasant, so long as he took his medication. He was well into his sixties when he started sinking into what Kate called his "hibernations," dozing for days on end in his Barcalounger and rousing himself only as physical needs dictated. When he stopped getting up to go to the bathroom, Kate had to put him in the VA home. Now eighty, Walter had been fully catatonic for years.
Kate herself retired from teaching at seventy-one, determined to finish a book she'd been writing since college, a novel based on the marriage and family life of her grandfather, the psychologist and philosopher William James. Without a job or brother to structure her days, Kate relaxed her personal habits. She ordered in groceries, lived on toast and tea, spent weeks on end in her bathrobe. The day Alice Black arrived at Wren Street, intending to stay for a semester, her great-aunt was napping at her desk amid perilous stacks of books, manuscript pages and jam-daubed, crumb-encrusted plates.
Alice was twenty-nine years old then, and had just shed both job and lover. (Her boyfriend, who was also her boss at the Riverine Ecology Project, had taken up with the other assistant.) Alice first drove to her parents' home in Lime Cove, a small farm town at the foot of the Sierras, where for two days she lay on her narrow childhood bed, surrounded by boxes of old bank statements, and contemplated her next move.