Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Review: Breakfast With Buddha by Roland Merullo

One of my book clubs chooses the upcoming reads based on the recommendations of a varied collection of people (not all of whom are in the group). This being the case, someone either in the group or close to a group member obviously raved about this book to get it onto our schedule. I certainly wasn't fussed by the choice as the book has been resident on my to be read shelves for quite some time now. But over all, it was rather a disappointment, especially knowing it had the force of recommendation behind it and a delightfully different premise too. I was quite disappointed to miss the meeting where it was discussed if only to hear other perspectives on it.

Otto Ringling is a middle-aged, food-book editor, originally from North Dakota, who lives a happy and fairly fulfilled life with his long-time wife and their two cookie-cutter teenaged children. The book opens with Otto (aka Everyman) taking time off work to drive out to North Dakota with his sister Cecelia to make arrangements for the disposition of their parents' farm, said parents having died in a car accident some months previous. But when Otto gets to his eccentric and New Age-ish sister's home, she informs him that she is not going with him. Instead, she wants him to take her spiritual advisor, to whom she wants to give her portion of the farm, with him. Otto doesn't want to have this perfect stranger in maroon robes foisted on him and he certainly doesn't want to show this foreigner a piece of America, but with grave misgivings, he agrees. So starts not only Otto's road trip but also his spiritual awakening.

With thoughts of mortality and the meaning of life flitting into and out of his consciousness, Otto is, of course, ripe to open to Volya Rinpoche's teachings. Unfortunately, Rinpoche sounds like Robert Fulghum and all he learned in kindergarten, offering up easy platitudes about living life mindfully, in moderation, and without causing harm to others. Certainly there's nothing wrong with living life this way, and a lot to be said for following this path, but as a revelation designed to open Otto's formerly skeptical eyes, it just trickles and dribbles, a little trite and very self-evident.

While some of the scenes of the childlike Rinpoche delighting in the everyday are entertaining enough, I am still uncertain as to how Otto ended up agreeing to take the man with him. Not only that but I apparently missed the transition Otto made from wanting to get to North Dakota quickly in order to rejoin his own family after wrapping up his business to willingly extending the road trip and meandering through the midwest with a not Buddhist monk in tow (Rinpoche refutes Otto's charge of Buddhism, claiming that all religions are at root similar enough to be not worth differentiating). The character of Rinpoche was a bit annoying and the way that his ability to use English seemed to fade in and out was almost as if Merullo veered between not wanting his spoken language to be a caricature and forgetting that he had written a character who indeed spoke English as an inexact second (or eleventh) language.

The latter portion of this first person narrative (Otto narrates) is very much a spiritual awakening journey and less and less of the road trip journey, a fact that made me lose interest in the book almost entirely. The ending grabbed me back, though not in a good way. The ending to this book was one of the most dreadful I have read in a long time, an airy-fairy, feel-good ending that grated unbelievably. Perhaps I am not spiritually open enough, just plain unelightened, or languishing too far back on the path, but I didn't love this book despite having been so attracted initially to the quirky premise and having enjoyed Merullo's A Little Love Story previously. Others thoroughly enjoyed the philosophical nature of the book though so it could just be my own stubbornness that kept me from being receptive to this novel.

1 comment:

I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

Popular Posts