The Explanation for Everything: A Novel

by Lauren Grodstein

(Algonquin, $24.95, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Lauren Grodstein had a bestseller with her earlier novel, “A Friend of the Family,” which also was named a Washington Post Best Book Pick, a New York Times Editor’s Pick, a BookPage Best Book and an Indie Next Pick. A teacher of creative writing at Rutgers University in New Jersey, she is the author of three previous novels.

What is this book about?

Grodstein takes on the couldn’t-be-touchier subject of belief in Darwinian evolution vs. the concept of intelligent design in this novel. When a biology professor, whose wife was killed by a drunk driver and is raising his daughters alone, is asked by an earnest and very likeable young woman with evangelical beliefs to sponsor her independent study project on intelligent design, the professor, who teaches a course titled “There Is No God,” gets entangled with her. She babysits his kids and begins to challenge his faith in science, just as he questions her faith in faith itself. Boundaries get violated, beliefs get tested and questions that cannot be answered at least get asked in this novel that explores one of the most difficult debates of our time.

Why you’ll like it:

Grodstein takes an often academic and philosophical dispute – one getting more attention lately as atheists increasingly celebrate their unbelief, rather than apologize for it – and explores it through a story about people trying to live their lives with honesty and compassion,  dealing with grief and the wish for revenge as well as trying to make sense of the universe. No matter your personal beliefs on belief itself, you will find provocative and compelling arguments in this story.

What others are saying:

“[Grodstein has] fashioned in her smart, assured third novel, The Explanation for Everything, . . . a gripping tale of a biologist who finds himself approaching midlife and suddenly finding faith . . . Grodstein’s real gift is her emotional precision . . . Finding or losing God proves to be an equally destabilizing tectonic shift, and this novel is full of them . . . Their cumulative force will leave you happily unsteady, and moved,” says The Washington Post.

Library Journal says in a starred review: “Andy Waite is just about holding his life together, trying to raise his two young daughters after his wife, Louisa, was killed by a drunk driver. As a biologist, Andy devotes himself to researching the effects of alcohol on laboratory mice. He is also obsessed with preventing the guy who killed Louisa from being paroled. At the mediocre college in southern New Jersey where he teaches, Andy offers a class called “There Is No God” on evolutionary biology. Most of his students are apathetic, except for a few evangelicals who strongly disagree with him. Then a persistent undergraduate named Melissa persuades him to sponsor her independent study project on intelligent design, and Andy reluctantly agrees. As Melissa becomes less sure of her religious convictions, Andy reevaluates his ideas about belief and forgiveness. VERDICT Many novelists explore love and loss, but Grodstein (A Friend of the Family) adroitly tackles big questions about faith and science, guilt and responsibility, punishment and healing. This engaging, and provocative novel is hard to put down. Highly recommended. “

Says Booklist: “Andy Waite is a biology professor who has never gone in for religion, but he lives for glimpses of his wife’s ghost. He’s trying to balance grief and fatherhood and a complicated relationship with his neighbor while applying for a grant that would help him prove that the brains of alcoholic mice are wired differently. None of it is going very well, although he is a pretty decent father to his two young girls. Then his seminar on Darwinism, “There Is No God,” is infiltrated by a Campus Crusader for Christ, and a student asks him to sponsor her independent study on intelligent design. All of this leads him to question the faith he was so confident he did not have. Nothing is neatly answered, and even though some of Andy’s actions are desperately cringe-worthy, you root for his hard-won wisdom. Grodstein handles everything with a subtle wit, managing to skewer both the ultraconservative and the ultraliberal without making either seem absolutely wrong.”

“In her fourth novel, Grodstein  . . . writes of loss of love and belief. Andy Waite’s a biology professor at Exton Reed, “eleven hundred students and forty-two acres of crumbling quad hidden at the ass end of New Jersey.” Andy loves teaching a class entitled “There Is No God,” a Darwinian homage. Andy’s mentor was a notorious Richard Dawkins–like professor, Hank Rosenblum. But Andy’s morose; his wife, Louisa, was killed by a drunken driver. He does have two precocious daughters, and tenure’s imminent, and there’s a possible National Science Foundation grant, one related to studies about alcohol and the brain. Louisa’s death explains his research, but nothing rational explains his agreement to mentor Melissa Potter’s independent study: an objectivist argument for intelligent design. Images of Louisa linger as Andy interacts with Sheila, divorced neighbor and recovering alcoholic. As his emotional relationship with Melissa skates toward intimacy, Andy is plagued by doubts–over his project’s validity after befriending Sheila; over his unbending opposition to parole for the young driver who killed Louisa; and over his rigidity as Melissa’s warmth and generosity make real the power of spiritual belief. Rather than offering the works of St. Augustine or C.S. Lewis as rationalizations for belief, Grodstein offers the homilies of a fictional local pastor; it’s a bit of an easier road, but her narrative sparkles with irony and wry observation. A fundamentalist student, Andy’s vocal opponent, loses his faith. Rosenblum’s overbearing prodding of a brilliant student who rejects science for marriage to a pastor results in her suicide. As the possibility of the divine sparks emotions Andy cannot comprehend, he learns he’s caught up in another person’s experiment. A college professor, Grodstein is perfect with her description of campus tremors radiating after a colleague strays from conventional wisdom. While Melissa’s motivations and actions are sometimes contradictory and counterintuitive, Grodstein’s portrait of Andy is spot-on, as is that of the evangelical student, Sheila, Rosenblum and the minor characters. A rumination on love and loss, faith in reason and faith in the divine.”

When is it available?

I believe you can find this book at the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Goodwin and Mark Twain branches.

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