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By Lauren Grodstein. Algonquin Books. 352 pages. $24.95
Thursday, September 12, 2013
The last two lines of Robert Frost’s poem “Design,” first published in 1922, question the apparent brutality of nature as a spider consumes a captive moth: “What but design of darkness to appall?—/If design govern in a thing so small.” He creates a mock extreme to underscore the aptness of design, whether natural or supernatural in origin.
Lauren Grodstein sets her third novel, “The Explanation for Everything,” in the middle of a cultural war only hinted at in Frost’s poem. The tension between evolutionism and creationism provides the social backdrop for the action, but the novelist appropriately refuses to take sides. As she said in a recent interview, “I write novels to investigate other people.” She explores how and why they live rather than suggest what they should believe. The novel deals with the cultural issues fully and fairly, not polemically.
The narrative explains the title and establishes that dramatic tension quickly. Andy Waite, a Princeton-educated assistant professor of biology up for tenure at a small college, Exton Reed in the Pine Barrens area of New Jersey, teaches a course popularly known as “There is No God.” He writes on the board for the first discussion: “Evolution is the explanation for everything.” His certainty seems irrefutable.
Andy’s life, however, has not been unshaken. His wife, a sensitive and sometime religious neonatal intensive care nurse, was killed by a drunken driver, Oliver McGee, a teenager who lived in their apartment complex in Miami .
Andy now writes letters to the parole board urging them not to release him before he has served his full sentence. As he tries to raise his two daughters alone, he writes letters to McGee he never mails and is haunted by the imagined ghost of his wife. Andy’s emotional certainty seems less sure.
His mentor at Princeton, Henry Rosenblum, had published one of the definitive evolutionist texts, “Religion’s Dangerous Lie.” Two students, seemingly no match for Andy’s educational pedigree, may have discovered a weakness in his intellectual armor.
Lionel Shell, a devout Christian, registers to retake Andy’s course for credit in order to write a response paper on the college’s position to allow atheism to be taught. He does not end up where he thought.
Melissa Potter, a transfer student new to campus, proposes undertaking an independent study on the scientific basis of intelligent design. With her, Andy oversteps many boundaries.
Grodstein explores with depth and sensitivity the intellectual and emotional struggles of these and other characters, with Andy as her protagonist. In many ways, in fact, and on important human levels, she develops her characters as they confront the same questions Frost asked. Science attempts to explain everything but do we find these emotionally or spiritually satisfying?
Andy’s Princeton mentor encouraged his students to see the wonder contained in scientific explanations. Nothing more is needed. Melissa, along with her pastor, Stephen Cling (the names seem “designed” throughout the novel) whose book “God is a Rainbow” Andy has read, rely upon wonder of belief. Andy’s emotional vulnerability leads him to want to borrow their faith in something more divine.
Some readers may want more out of this novel, a definitive conclusion that ties up the loose ends. Andy claims in the beginning that Darwin is right, that evolution explains everything. Others present different claims, spiritual rather than scientific. Grodstein, who characterizes herself as a “reluctant atheist” displays for us the human temperament as it tries to reconcile the pervasive contradictions of life.
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