Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Fiction Review: Breakfast with Buddha

There’s nothing better for a 3-week long road trip than a book about a road trip! So, on our recent vacation out to Colorado, I brought along Roland Merullo’s novel, Breakfast with Buddha, about a man who takes a cross-country road trip from NYC to North Dakota (many summers we’ve driven from the East Coast to South Dakota). The catch? His companion on this trip is a red-robed monk-type guru.

The road trip details in this novel are so accurate (Merullo says they’re based on an actual trip) that I mistakenly thought this was a memoir at first. At some point (I’m not saying how far in!), I figured out that the main character’s name was different than the author’s and it was a novel. Once I had that figured out, I absolutely loved this book! Its combination of travelogue, humor, and philosophy were perfect.

Otto Ringling is an ordinary kind of guy – a middle-aged husband, father of two teens, and editor of food-related books who lives in New Jersey and commutes into NYC. He has lots of friends, a nice house, and is happy with his life. Recently, though, his parents were both killed in a car accident, and Otto has to go back to North Dakota, where he grew up, to settle their estate and sell the family farm. He thinks he’s making the trip with his sweet but wacky sister, but she has other plans, as he finds out when he goes to pick her up and she somehow convinces him to instead travel with her guru, Volyo Rinpoche, to whom she wants to give her part of the estate:

Which is basically the story of how, after another half hour of pleading, on my sister’s part, and attempting to resist, on mine, I ended up agreeing to drive Volvo Rinpoche from NJ to ND. When we went outside to give him the news, the Rinpoche seemed interested, mildly curious, amused, but not in any discernable way grateful. His luggage consisted of one cloth bag that looked like an oversized, well-worn pocketbook with leather handles. He accepted a minute-long embrace from my sister, bowed to her in a tender way, and settled himself into the front seat as calmly as if he’d been making the insurance payments for the past six months. My sister hugged me double-long, a double-long spinal massage included.

I was behind the wheel, seatbelt on, without knowing quite how it had happened. I lowered the window. “You said you had a dream about Rinpoche and me,” I said to Cecilia. “What were we doing?”

A gorgeous smile lit my sister’s face. She leaned toward me, happy as a child, and said, “Bowling!”

The rest of the novel chronicles their trip across the U.S. Otto tries to show Rinpoche the essence of America, with stops at Hershey, a baseball game, various restaurants (he is a foodie, after all), and, yes, a bowling alley. Rinpoche, in a quiet, no-pressure sort of way, engages Otto in some very thought-provoking discussions about nothing less than the meaning of life.

I loved everything about this book. Of course, the details of the road trip entranced me, since we make similar journeys every summer; I even tried to find a restaurant they stopped at in Pennsylvania (no luck – we ended up at a Long John Silver’s – as the author correctly states in the book, there are few good dining options off the Pennsylvania Turnpike). I also very much enjoyed the author’s sense of humor and found myself frequently reading amusing passages out loud to my husband.

But besides the fact that this is just a fun novel to read, it is also very thought provoking. I loved the philosophical discussions about everything from religion to anger to sex. The author successfully introduces all sorts of sometimes controversial topics as simply food for thought in a gentle, non-intrusive way. The novel is never contentious or preachy, just fun and thoughtful. I came home dying to lend it to my friends and my mom. While I can’t think of a better accompaniment for a summer trip, this would also make an excellent book club pick.


  1. Nice review. Has me interested in the trip and the monk. Wonder what the author's background is in Buddhism?

  2. At the end, the author explains that he's done a lot of reading and personal research into all sorts of forms of spiritualism and religion, and he includes a long list of references. Made me want to read more!


  3. Sounds like a wonderful book. I'm adding it to my 'must read' list. I love road trips and Eastern philosophy...what a marvelous combination. Thanks!

  4. Anonymous10:31 AM

    I also loved the book right up till the very end. I thought the religious imagery and symbolism, which was very deftly and unimposingly handled throughout the book, became heavy-handed and dogmatic in the ending. I can't say more to those who haven't read the book without giving away the plot.

    I still think it's well worth reading, just found the final moments disappointing. The author is obviously capable of more open-mindedness but chose to hit me over the head with something very specific at the finish.

  5. This one is on my tbr list based on a review I read online. It's nice to have your positive review to confirm that. Looking forward to getting to this one...eventually. *sigh*