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I would never have believed that I’d review – and love – a novel that includes recipes. But Michelle Huneven’s “Search” and her Midmorning Glory Muffins have made me a believer. Which is appropriate because “Search” is a story about the evolving nature of belief.

Others, though, may feel skeptical about entering this explicitly religious novel. After all, “Search” is about a church looking for a new minister. The chapters present a long series of committee meetings – a plot that could test the faith of even the most devout reader, despite the inclusion of Escarole Salad with Favas, Mint, and Pecorino. Indeed, in summary “Search” sounds weirdly ecclesial and culinary, like Marilynne Robinson with a light vinaigrette.

Behold: What follows isn’t so much a review as an act of evangelicalism.

Huneven’s narrator, Dana, is a restaurant critic and memoirist who belongs to a Unitarian Universalist Church in Arroyo, Calif. The wealthy, highly educated group of about 300 members is liberal to a fault, more devoted to diversity than divinity: Atheists Welcome! They’re wholly focused on social action and generally uncomfortable with Jesus-talk. By some heavenly coincidence, the church goes by its initials AUUCC, pronounced “awk.”

Although Dana has belonged for 24 years, in the opening pages she confesses to a “midlife spiritual drift,” a rising ambivalence about organized religion. “I wasn’t sure I still wanted to go to church,” she says. “Almost everything in the Sunday worship had begun to annoy me.”

The universe, of course, has other plans for Dana.

When the minister suddenly announces his intention to retire, a committee is formed to conduct a year-long search for his replacement. The intense little group must articulate the church’s goals, interview ministerial candidates and present the best applicant to the laity.

Dana is daunted and flattered to be asked to join the search committee, though the retiring minister warns her: “Not everyone survives prolonged exposure to all the behind-the-scenes and inner workings of an institution.” Still, Dana imagines that participating will enliven her spiritual life and even help her create an organization that interests her more. “I was hungry,” she says, for “intense discussions of spiritual issues, theological trends, and ministry itself; subjects that my husband and my a-religious friends were not inclined to explore: faith, surrender, Baptist polit, the flames all mystics see. “

Beneath those metaphysical concerns, Dana also harbors a secret motive, which becomes the incarnation of this book. Participating on the search committee, she hopes, will provide her with material she needs for her next memoir: “The Search, or how five or six intelligent, well-meaning people select their new leader. A study of democracy in miniature. A fractal of the national process. Plus recipes. “

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The stakes may be salvation itself, but, as is so often the case, the real matter of church work is taken up with who’s wearing what, whether members should clap for the choir and other earthbound distractions sowed in every congregation by Screwtape’s minions. Even Dana wonders, “Who’d want to read a book about a church committee,” but the story that develops from this wafer-thin premise is miraculously engaging. Dana finds herself part of a committee divided into older members who know exactly How Things Must Be and younger members who are weary of ministers nattering on about Annie Dillard. One of them is covered in tattoos; another is in a polyamorous relationship. “This was not quite the group of brilliant, wise deliberators of my fantasies,” Dana admits. But naturally, everybody imagines they have God – or the Goddess – on their side.

That theme, explored with light wit and deep humanity, makes this unabashedly churchly novel strikingly relevant to our conflicted political era. Dana is flummoxed and sometimes infuriated that her fellow committee members don’t appreciate or dislike the same candidates she does. How do we convince people that they should reject the meretricious puffery they find inspiring? How do we resist the bitterness that comes from knowing we’re right while everybody else is wrong? An older member of the search committee gently advises, “Consensus is not just everybody agreeing,” but Dana is often too angry to understand what that might entail.

Clearly, there’s more than a soupcon of autobiography mixed into this novel. Like Dana, Huneven spent time in seminary and then became a restaurant reviewer and an award-winning food writer. She attends a Unitarian Universalist church herself and once served on a search committee to find an assistant minister. Huneven’s fellow congregants must be poring over these pages like Holy Writ searching for signs of their faces and foibles. But I suspect the author is far too experienced to lift her own acquaintances into this story untransformed.

Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Crossroads’ follows a minister in crisis

Still, there is something refreshingly candid and transparent about “Search.” For all our oversharing, we have relatively few novelists willing to write about the role of religion in contemporary life – and even fewer who address spiritual practices with humor, empathy and lived wisdom. Huneven is one of those rare spirits. Religion doesn’t bore or frighten her. She knows what a rich and fraught sanctuary the sanctuary can be.

“Church is the one place I know that privileges the soul,” Dana says, “that focuses on spiritual values ​​and bases a community on them. Church gives me more capacious and compassionate ways to think about my life – and the world. “

One could say the same thing about a thoughtful novel like this.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post.

Penguin Press. 393 pp. $ 27

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