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Philosophy Made Simple    by Robert Hellenga order for
Philosophy Made Simple
by Robert Hellenga
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2006 (2006)

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I was immediately drawn to this novel by the elephant on the cover - she lurks in a Texas avocado grove. Said elephant becomes an important part of sixty-year-old widower Rudy Harrington's search for meaning in the remains of his life. His loved wife Helen died seven years before, after an affair with a man named Bruno Bruni in Italy - something Rudy's still trying to process and to second guess.

Rudy ponders choices made and the possibility of parallel universes based on pivotal decisions, something his daughter's Indian boyfriend Tejinder has sent him an article about - according to TJ, 'there were no roads not taken.' This Indian connection also delivers to Rudy a book (by TJ's philosopher uncle Siva Singh) entitled Philosophy Made Simple, of course. Rudy mulls over its contents and is influenced by its ideas - in particular by Plato's allegory of shadows in a cave.

Rudy has three daughters - Margot, Molly and Meg, all creative, intelligent and quite different from each other. Almost serendipitously, and with ongoing self-doubt, he spreads his wings, selling the Chicago family home and buying an avocado grove in Texas. Once down there, culture shock and second thoughts overwhelm Rudy, until he gets acquainted with Norma Jean (an elephant who paints the most amazing pictures), sees the Rio Grande for the first time, and tries to figure out what's important.

His employee Medardo offers to take Rudy along on a 'Cultural Friday' at Estrella Princesa, telling him that lovely young women will 'know how to help you out of your cave.' A float down the Rio Grande leads to his meeting a Catholic priest, while arrangements for his daughter Molly's wedding to TJ bring him to a Hindu pandit. He has a heart attack. Norma Jean saves Rudy's life, and ends up moving in to his barn, in time to star in his daughter's wedding. Rudy falls in love with TJ's mother Nandini.

Surrounded by priest, pandit, philosopher and the elephant god (the remover of obstacles) Ganesh, Rudy is told that 'trying to get the answers you want to life's questions directly from someone else is like trying to cheat on an examination.' There's a crisis and tragedy, and Rudy finally accepts his wife's conduct by explaining his daughter's. In Philosophy Made Simple, Robert Hellenga offers an engagingly whimsical read, and a great deal of food for thought - a feast for the mind and for book group discussion.

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