It's not easy having a midlife crisis – sixty-year-old retiree Rudy Harrington knows this better than anyone. Helen, his wife, died several years ago, and since then, Rudy has been drifting. He still lives in the ramshackle family house, but his three grown daughters have long since moved on.
Meg, the oldest, has a law degree, and two kids; the middle girl, Molly, teaches social dancing in Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Margot, the youngest, is a book conservator who has gone to Italy on the spur of the moment. Over the years, his relationships with his daughters have become somewhat taciturn.
Recognizing that at his age there aren’t many chapters left in his life, he makes a snap decision to sell the house - and, accompanied by
the fifteenth edition of a student handbook called Philosophy Made Simple, written by
Molly's boyfriend's uncle, the philosopher Siva Singh, he moves to Texas, where he buys a dusty avocado grove on the edges of the Rio Grande.
What has happened to his life? Where has it all gone? Rudy is sure that it is time to move on and to let go; "it's as though he were sprouting wings, big golden wings, wings intent to carry him out of the past into the future." But the move from selling avocadoes at a Chicago produce market to actually growing them comes at a price.
He gets a gets a terrible case of cold feet, swamped at the last minute by buyer's remorse.
Salvation arrives in the form of a rich and eccentric cast of characters who begin to orbit his life.
The Mexican grove manager teaches him to enjoy the simple pleasures - particularly wine, women and song; an ego-centric Hindu holy man educates Rudy in Eastern mysticism; and a kindly Latino woman tells him that he
is looking for "the right touch on life," and that he has "a world full of love," particularly the love of his three exquisite daughters.
Nevertheless, it is mostly through caring for the benevolent Norma Jean that
Rudy learns the most about life and love. Owned by a Russian "whose name Rudy
can never pronounce," Norma Jean is an excellently disposed elephant – kind, friendly, big-hearted, barrel-shaped and fragrant, and her ways begin to unexpectedly transform Rudy from an irascible
introvert into a person who is perhaps capable of finally finding love again.
Rudy's journey is one of courage and wisdom, a never-ending quest to explore the profound mysteries of human existence. His heartache is both physical and emotional - he continues to be haunted by
the affair that almost undermined his marriage. This heart-piercing ache for Helen's forgiveness, however painful, is the central experience of Rudy's life. He must come to terms with this and no one - not Aristotle, Epicurus, nor Siva Singh – can ever convince him otherwise.
Author Robert Hellenga fuses elements of multiculturalism, religion, Eastern mysticism, love of family - and an eccentric painting elephant - into a warm-hearted story of one man's journey of self-discovery. Philosophy is filtered through Rudy's perception of the world around him, and through the topography of his interior life. When a sudden heart attack forces Rudy to confront his own mortality, the incident also provides the catalyst for a reconnection with his daughters, especially young Molly and her Indian fiancé. As Rudy begins to fall in love for a second time, he must put to rest the fears that were bred in isolation, and begin to enjoy life again.
Equally uplifting and poignant - with a touch of the zany and wacky thrown in for good measure – Philosophy Made Simple is part cherished family saga and part treatise on the meaning of life. The novel is also a colorful fabric of a life not yet lived to the fullest, an incisive portrait of an aging man knotted together by his own past yet frightened to face an uncertain future.
Rudy must put aside everything he knows about the certainty of death, the untrustworthiness of the senses, and his failure to validate his earlier visions. Throughout the novel he learns that life is a painful process - youth grows old, love grows old - and the journey is never as liberating as we anticipate, sometimes "getting ready to live is easier than actually living." Conversely, Rudy also learns that in order to be truly happy, he must let the bright color of his new life wash over him and permit himself "to be ravished by its beauty."