Breakfast with Buddha by Roland Merullo. Published 2007 by Algonquin. Hardcover.
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Breakfast with Buddha is the new novel from Massachusetts-based writer Roland Merullo, which takes as its subject the angst of the upper-middle-class American man, specifically one who must take a road trip with his sister's Russian New-Age guru. Otto Ringling is a well-off publishing executive from suburban New York whose parents have recently died, leaving him and his hippy-ish sister a valuable homestead in North Dakota. In order to settle the estate he must go out there and transact some business; his sister is afraid to fly and insists that he undertake the trip in the company of one Volya Rinpoche, a monk of unclear religious leanings. Otto is not pleased, but he's a good guy and agrees, and the trip is not what he expects.
I have been a fan of Roland Merullo's for several years, ever since I read Revere Beach Boulevard, one of three books in his Revere Beach Trilogy. Revere Beach Boulevard is a compassionate novel about a blue-collar Italian-American family in transition and in trouble and compassionate is the key word because it characterizes much of Merullo's writing. Revere is a working-class town in northeastern Massachusetts near where I grew up, and I know how easy a target its denizens make for snobbery and derision but Merullo really treats his characters with care and respect, and the same is true with Breakfast with Buddha. Otto and Rinpoche could both have easily been caricatures- a clueless yuppie and a Froot Loop off on a road trip. Instead they are both believable and likable, flawed but kind and sensitive to the world around them.
You can probably tell, but I liked this book a lot. Merullo is a very skilled writer and as I said, draws his characters with compassion and sensitivity. One thing I like to do when I'm done reading first-person stories of personal transformation is to re-read the first chapter or two, to see the way the narrator introduces the story. In this kind of book the beginning is also the end- the character has already lived the story and the transformation has already taken place when it opens, so it is worthwhile, after having experienced the story, to see how the narrator talks about what for him has already happened. In this case I saw on this second reading something like embarrassment on Otto's part, a very modest self-effacement that I found endearing. The only flaw I found was the sense I had about 7/8 of the way through that Otto's transformation came on a little quickly, but re-reading the beginning dispelled this impression a little or at least softened it with the sense that okay, yes, it's a believably ongoing process. Anyway it's a charming, sweet, beautifully written book. Go read it.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.