Books — Buddha Da

Not about Buddhism but good anyway


By Lisa Parsons []


Buddha Da, by Anne Donovan, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004, 330 pages.

Anne Donovan does things in Buddha Da that you’d think wouldn’t work, but they do.

Like rotating narrators—one chapter from the wife, one chapter from the husband, one from the daughter. This can be dangerous strategy, possibly whiplashing readers, but Donovan pulls it off smoothly. Like writing the entire thing in dialect, as in “Ah used tae get slagged stupit when ma mates fund oot she was only fourteen, but she seemed aulder, was always mair mature.” I don’t know how the Scottish reader would feel about this, but it makes it kind of fun from here. God knows there are a million books coming off the assembly lines like near-clones, and anything that adds a little variety—and challenge—has a shot.

Da, by the way, means “dad.”

The story begins with Jimmy, a workaday schlep of a husband/father, taking a Buddhist meditation class on a lark. No one expects much to come of it, but this time, for once in his life, he perseveres.

When he declares an indefinite need for celibacy, his wife Liz draws a line. Jimmy goes to live at the Buddhist Centre in town. Liz guiltily discovers the benefits to a Jimmy-free household. Meanwhile their only child, teenaged Anne Marie, keeps busy with friends and music and isn’t too bothered by all this. Jimmy comes over for movies with Anne Marie on Friday nights. Everyone stays on friendly terms.

Here I do have one complaint with the book; it veers sharply away from its focus on the eponymous Buddha Da and trains its eye mainly on wife Liz for an extended period of time. The entire latter half of the book, to be approximate. Even the ending has little to do with any transformation in Jimmy, far more to do with transformation in Liz. She’s arguably the book’s main character, so it might’ve been nice if the title had said so.

But then I wouldn’t have read it and I would’ve missed out.

If you’d told me ahead of time it was a book about a wife whose husband goes Buddhist and celibate and moves out and she has a sort of affair with a young man and her kindly old mother dies and her friend has a baby and she really wants one too… I might’ve thought, insipid romantic chick book! Run, run! Even if it is in a fascinating Scottish brogue!

And it isn’t. Insipid, romantic, or especially chicky—well, unless you count as chicky anything that isn’t Tom Clancy.

In addition to all those other things (wife, affair, baby), Buddha Da does have a Buddhist-learning Da who is sincerely, if sometimes haplessly, trying to settle into himself. And it does have a realistic teenage daughter to break up the tension—e.g. by recording a CD of Tibetan lamas’ chants sampled over her own stellar rendition of “Ave Maria” (it wins an award). And it does have karma.

It’s good-hearted, it flows well, it’s more absorbing than a lot of what’s out there (again, ignoring the whole spy-thriller genre). It doesn’t definitively answer the question of what happens when you throw a bunch of Buddhist lamas at a traditional Scottish family, but it has fun with it.

—Lisa Parsons

2004 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH