G.K. Chesterton once said that he had “searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees.” In Michelle Huneven’s fifth novel, Search, we can begin to see why Chesterton’s hunt proved so fruitless.
Pastor Tom Fox has been dialing it in lately, and his Southern Californian congregation is becoming restless. Some of the church’s executive committee members approach a fellow congregant, restaurant critic and food writer Dana Potowski, with the suggestion that she take him to lunch and have a come-to-Jesus chat about the situation. Well, not exactly come-to-Jesus; the Unitarian Universalists don’t work that way.
For readers unfamiliar with it, the Unitarian Universalist Association is a spiritual organization that’s open to theists, atheists, agnostics and believers of all stripes, formed from the union of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. “I could go into some detail about the theological and class differences between the two groups,” says narrator Dana, “but suffice it to say that Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Unitarian and P. T. Barnum a Universalist.”
When Pastor Fox cops to his critics’ appraisal and lets it slip that he’s planning to retire from ministry, this sets into motion a replacement search committee, which Dana semireluctantly joins. Previous committee meetings had taken place over potluck dinners, so Dana persuades herself to take the plunge by planning to get her next project—The Search Committee Cookbook—out of it.
Whiting Award winner Huneven is uniquely suited to undertake a novel like this; not only did she study at the Methodist Claremont School of Theology and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but she’s also a James Beard Award-winning food journalist. She gleefully digs into the sausagemaking of a New-Agey church committee trying to reach consensus. They go on retreat. They hold meetings. They undergo anti-oppression training “to promote inclusivity and discourage undue discrimination in the search process.” And they talk—with one another, over one another, behind one another’s backs, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes lovingly, sometimes angrily. By the time the process winds down, all eight committee members have vetted not only the replacement candidates but also each other.
They also consume a great deal of food. If it’s true (as Napoleon may have said) that an army marches on its stomach, then a church committee bears some resemblance to a platoon. Here Huneven sparkles, with chop-licking descriptions of their potluck delectables, and as a bonus, she includes a baker’s dozen recipes as appendices.
But there’s also a profoundly spiritual dimension to Search. It raises difficult questions about living one’s beliefs in a faith-based community and doesn’t flinch when principles and practice come into conflict. Like a challenging sermon or a great restaurant’s tasting menu, Search leaves the reader hungry for more.