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January 10 , 2010

A Monk Among Us


Brown’s debut novel offers the complicated romance of an extremely unlikely pair: an energetic, ambitious attorney and a spiritual, laid-back monk.
A gentle, contemplative man who calls himself Monk returns to his rough old neighborhood outside Bridgeport, Conn.—the very area where he once ran with a gang—to rehabilitate a building and establish a mission. Meanwhile, Lila’s old school friend suggests that she come to the Mission Center to volunteer at Thanksgiving, and she agrees; she’s on the fast track to make partner at her father’s law firm but yearns for more meaning in her life. When she meets Monk, the two seem at first to have nothing in common; Lila is prone to sarcastic quips and compulsive overwork, whereas Monk prefers deep, slow contemplation and doesn’t even own a phone, TV or computer. (Brown handles the familiar odd-couple gambit with straightforward ease, neither taking it for granted nor relying on it too heavily.) However, the simplicity of Monk’s life appeals to Lila (“I needed to shake someone’s hand and look that person in the eyes,” she tells him), and soon they spend a good deal of time together—including in bed, since Monk’s spiritual vows don’t include involuntary celibacy. Indeed, his skills at tantric endurance rituals ensure that Lila becomes a frequent visitor to his sparsely furnished Mission Center quarters. Through snappy dialogue and skilled use of secondary characters—particularly Lila’s volatile sister, Laura, and Laura’s young daughter, Kali—Brown infuses his story with humor and believability, even when the surprisingly crowded plot suddenly expands to include an accident, a hospital visit and a very unexpected, fundamental change in Lila’s personality. Anchoring the whole thing is Monk himself, always serene and yet always intriguingly human; his participation in a funeral service will likely stick with readers long after they’ve finished the book.
A well-done, ultimately uplifting novel about finding the courage to reinvent yourself.

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