About the Book:
It’s been six years since brothers-in-law Otto Ringling and Volya Rinpoche took their first road trip together in Breakfast with Buddha. Otto has recently lost his wife, Jeannie, to cancer, and his family and his sister’s have met on the west coast in order to scatter Jeannie’s ashes. The painful ceremony concluded, the rest of the family boards a train back to North Dakota, where Rinpoche (a world-renowned spiritual leader) and his wife (Otto’s sister) run a retreat center on the Ringling family’s land. Otto and Rinpoche climb into Uma, a rickety old pickup truck donated to Rinpoche by one of his devotees, to drive the new acquisition the week, give or take, back to North Dakota.
Thus begins the chronicle of a memorable road trip, one that mixes quirky Americana with spiritual teachings, a food-obsessed New York City editor with a Buddhist-like monk, the pleasure of simple things with the bottomless pain of losing a loved one. Through unlikely circumstances and in the moments he least expects it, Otto begins to grapple with what has come to pass…and what is still to come.
Lunch with Buddha is the third of Roland Merullo’s novels I’ve read (Breakfast with Buddha and American Savior being the first two), and I found it no less delightful than the others. Though it is the sequel to Breakfast with Buddha, by no means must you read one to appreciate the other.
There is a quality to Merullo’s writing that is subtle yet unique, so that reading the first paragraphs of Lunch with Buddha felt familiar somehow — even though it’s been several years since I read something from Merullo’s pen. His style is, if you can imagine it, a blend of fanciful and practical, imaginative and down to earth, good sturdy storytelling grounded in reality yet laced with the loveliest of metaphors and moments. I had, in fact, forgotten how much I enjoyed his particular blend.
Merullo also has a knack for creating characters. His are never so crazy that you can’t recognize in them some familiar archetype: the doubting, practical protagonist; his woo-woo sister; a pair of mostly good children; an enigmatic monk. Yet never do they feel stale. Merullo manages across the board to breathe fresh life into his cast, to make them unique without rendering them unrecognizable. I find it quite enjoyable to spend time with them.
Because Otto narrates the story, we get to know him best. Born and bred in North Dakota, having spent most of his adult life in New York City, he is a practical man, almost cynical at times — and yet there is a yearning in him to hear what Rinpoche has to say. The book ventures, at times, quite far into the realm of spirituality, yet because Otto is our guide, it doesn’t feel like too much. Maybe it’s because we know the blend of curiosity and skepticism ourselves. Add to this Otto’s efforts to cope with his wife’s recent passing and you have a complex, endearing, very human narrator.
Volya Rinpoche is an excellent complement to Otto. Stout and fearless, enigmatic and jolly, he dispenses maddeningly opaque bits of wisdom in broken English and at seemingly random times. He is a constant source of both frustration and delight, for both Otto and the reader. And the way in which he interprets the spiritual lessons in ordinary events for Otto is superb.
There is very much a spiritual side to Lunch with Buddha. What I appreciate about Merullo’s approach is how seamlessly he integrates his exploration of the less concrete side of existence into the fabric of the narrative. It doesn’t feel like a stretch, like you’re reading two different books whose anecdotes have been interspersed. And there doesn’t seem to be much of an agenda, beyond allowing Otto (and, through him, the reader) to explore the worldview of one Volya Rinpoche. This added layer provides depth to the characters and the story without hampering the tale.
Overall, I found Lunch with Buddha to be an enjoyable, relaxing, enlightening read — gentle, funny, touching, and full of food for thought. I’m happy to have been reminded to check out more by Roland Merullo!
What novels have you encountered that combine big themes into something really enjoyable to read? If you’ve read others by Merullo, what should I pick up next?