three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
23-July-Aug-2006
user_rating: 
0

A-PhilosophyMadeSimpleIn Hellenga’s The Sixteen Pleasures (1994), Margot Harrington, a book conservator, ran off to Florence in 1966 to find herself. Philosophy Made Simple features the same family, offering the perspective of Margot’s father, Rudy Harrington. A widower of seven years, with his three daughters living their own lives, Rudy experiences an existential crisis as he reads a book called Philosophy Made Simple. Following a vision, he sells his Chicago home and becomes an avocado wholesaler in Texas. His unexpected move brings him into contact with Norma Jean, an elephant with artistic talent; a Mexican foreman; a priest; and a wedding—and possible answers to life’s big questions.
Little, Brown. 288 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 0316058262

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Hellenga once again has produced a novel that adds immeasurably to the pleasures of reading contemporary fiction. His ability to ground his intelligence in the everyday and produce novels that are smart and intellectually engaging while at the same time emotionally compelling is a rare thing." Alan Cheuse

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Since this is a novel, it is not a surprise to learn where Hellenga stands on the ancient quarrel between philosophy and literature. He makes his case against Plato well, moving us with pathos and pleasure, startling us into wisdom." Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Norma Jean’s capacity to make her way and to have her way, adapt to monumental changes and know when to call it a day provide a tender counterpoint to Rudy’s struggle with all that is happening in his own life. … Hellenga has done it again: told a straightforward story of ordinary people with ordinary problems and invested it with wit, charm and extraordinary magic." Valerie Ryan

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"At times, Hellenga tries too hard to be a realist when the novel works best as fable. … This emphasis on universal truths rather than psychological particulars is what gives the novel its feeling of fable. Hellenga reminds us, through story, that philosophy and life cannot be made simple." Charles Oberndorf

Newsday 3 of 5 Stars
"[T]he book comes dangerously close to patronizing its characters and readers. Hellenga makes philosophy concrete and lyrical, but sometimes he also makes it a little too simple." Polly Shulman

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[D]espite the considerable clarity and charm of Hellenga’s prose, the weighty ideas and antic plot of Philosophy Made Simple often seem artificially imposed on each other. … Hellenga’s novel, meanwhile, teeters precariously between serious questions and madcap capers, between scrutiny and screwball." Heller McAlpin

Critical Summary

Quieter than The Sixteen Pleasures, Philosophy Made Simple is almost—but not quite—as fine a novel. Although it touches on relationships between parents and children, farming, friendship, and life events, the overarching theme speaks to how philosophical beliefs play out in daily life. Hellenga juxtaposes the history of philosophy, from Plato to Kant, with Rudy’s search for meaning. This approach, given the seriocomic tone of the novel, seemed artificial to a few critics, smart to some, and oversimplified to others. Despite this divide and a few awkward subplots, Philosophy Made Simple—a poignant fable, really—will charm readers.