Whenever Claire Lombardo’s parents would punish her, she says, “they would send me to bed without books.” Growing up in Oak Park, on a leafy street a block north of Ernest Hemingway’s birthplace, she was obsessed with The Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High, then J.D. Salinger, and on to Lorrie Moore, Charles Baxter, and Curtis Sittenfeld as a teenager. While Lombardo loved writing “long, rambling scenes” during this period, becoming a full-time writer never seemed like a practical career. She decided to embark on a master’s degree in social work at the University of Illinois. But three months in, her world was upended: Her dad suddenly died.
“It made me realize I wasn’t doing what mattered to me,” Lombardo, now 30, says. She dropped out, returned home to Oak Park, and kept writing short stories. “That was how I got through that year. I had this novel to come home to at the end of the day, and it was therapeutic for me in a way. It felt better than real life sometimes.” Lombardo took a leap of faith and applied to creative writing MFA programs across the country. She wound up at the most renowned, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she studied under Chicago novelist Rebecca Makkai, among others.
The short stories eventually formed 2019’s most buzzed-about family novel, The Most Fun We Ever Had. Though it’s Lombardo’s debut work of fiction, it’s already received a recommendation from Jane Smiley in the Washington Post, a feature in the New York Times, and rave reviews. “Claire Lombardo writes like she’s been doing it for a hundred years, and like she’s been alive for a thousand,” Makkai says on the back of the book. “Everything about this brilliant debut cuts deep: the humor, the wisdom, the pathos.”
Set in Oak Park in 2016, The Most Fun hardly resembles Lombardo’s tranquil and book-filled childhood. The story is a Midwestern Big Little Lies — an intimate character study of a group of affluent, secretive women. Instead of the Monterrey Five, The Most Fun stars the four grown Sorenson sisters and their aging parents. The youngest, Grace, is a pathological liar. The oldest, Wendy, is an alcoholic widow. And the middle sisters, Violet and Liza, struggle with their own families and neuroses. The inciting incident is the sudden reappearance of Jonah, a 15-year-old son that Violet gave up for adoption soon after he was born.
Lombardo has three sisters, but asserts the Sorensons aren’t based on real people. “I gave The Most Fun to one of my sisters, and she finished it and said, ‘I didn’t recognize any of those people,’” she says. “My mom has read it multiple times and has said, ‘I know this isn’t our family, but that’s definitely our kitchen table,’ or ‘You definitely had that conversation.’”
She originally had the novel take place in a fictional suburb before settling on her hometown. “I have a complicated relationship with Oak Park,” Lombardo says. “It’s an interesting place, socioeconomically and politically. It’s a pretty place to live, but it’s also situated across the street from some of the most terrible poverty in Chicago. If I’d had another 800 pages in this book, I would have gotten more into the weird cultural landscape of Oak Park. But I’m not a big researcher, and I didn’t want to get those details wrong.”
Before she can start talking about her next book, a collection of short stories, Lombardo gasps from over the phone in Iowa City, where she’s been an adjunct writing professor for the past two years. “I’m sorry, there’s a dead squirrel in the middle of my street and someone just pulled over in a van and is picking it up in her bare hands,” she says. “I drove by it earlier. It was sad as hell. But this elderly woman is taking it. Is she putting it in a trashcan? Wow.” She pauses. “That’s a short story right there.”
Author Conversation: Claire Lombardo & Elizabeth Taylor Thursday, August 8. Andersonville. Women & Children First. 7 p.m. Free. womenandchildrenfirst.com
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