New Yorker Otto Ringling is traveling cross-country with his kids on a devastating errand. Adrift and in mourning, Otto and his college-aged son and daughter join up with Otto’s sister, Cecelia, as well as her young daughter and husband: a charismatic, eccentric spiritual guru named Volya Rinpoche.
In Seattle, the group completes their sad task and prepares to head home — back east for the Ringlings; home to a North Dakota retreat for Cecelia, Rinpoche and Shelsa. Otto’s children will leave and scatter. He will retreat into his work as a food editor, trying to swallow around a hard lump of grief. Unable to turn his mind elsewhere, Otto’s wounds will fester. He will dwell. He will struggle from one day to the next, searching and alone.
Unless . . .
Life and its detours — an endless circle of paths and sanctuaries. Tasked with driving a recently-purchased old truck back to North Dakota, Otto joins Rinpoche on a road trip that will transport them from one coast to the Midwest — through a series of byways, spiritual and physical, that will change them both.
Roland Merullo’s Lunch With Buddha is lyrical, thought-provoking, exquisite. I knew I was in for a treat from the first page, basking in the rich language, and Merullo’s novel is truly a joy for the senses.
Narrator Otto is the perfect mix of skeptic and believer. Hanging with Rinpoche, a revered holy man with an unending philosophical appreciation for life, is enough to change anyone — but Otto doesn’t have accept it. Still smarting from a recent tragedy, he’s not always in the mood for Rinpoche’s musings and non sequiturs — but knows his brother-in-law means well. Traveling together from Washington to North Dakota in a rickety old vehicle allows the pair plenty of chats on life, love and what comes next. And for Otto, a foodie and family man, these chats transcend the simple road trip. (And by the way — how much do I love road trips? This one was great.)
Rinpoche himself is a true character. Enigmatic and fascinated by the strange habits of Americans, his observations — in broken English — reflect U.S. culture through a very unique prism. I loved the questions he asks Otto about the American way of doing things, and his devotion to Cecelia and Shelsa is very sweet. He’s someone completely comfortable in his skin — a man who doesn’t think of vanity, selfishness, cruelty. Regardless of one’s religion, Rinpoche’s thought-provoking prompts and explanations are fascinating.
There’s so much to love about Lunch With Buddha, a review book I accepted with some trepidation. I was worried I wouldn’t connect with the characters, would find the religious aspects too preachy, wouldn’t relate to Otto and his sad quest. I hadn’t read the first in Merullo’s series, Breakfast With Buddha, and worried I’d miss something by starting with the second book. But something about the description tugged at me — and despite its length, I was completely drawn into Rinpoche and Otto’s tale. No previous knowledge of the Ringling family necessary.
The story’s first-person narration clinched it for me. As Rinpoche and Otto meandered across state lines, meeting others who would teach lessons along the way, I felt like I’d wedged myself into the yurt they were supposed to share or hitched a ride in the back of the cab. Their journey is just that: a journey. One with a destination, yes, but also one without. One that continues long after we’ve closed the book.
4.5 out of 5!