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Onyx reviews: The Explanation for Everything by Lauren Grodstein

Based on the setup, it seems like The Explanation for Everything will center around a debate between an atheist biology professor at a small New Jersey college and a student determined to open his eyes by proposing an independent study paper about intelligent design. If he had been thinking clearly, Andy Waite would never have agreed to take on the project, which has no place in a science department. However, he's feeling the pressure of an impending decision on his tenure and a research project into the biological origins of alcoholism that isn't producing the kinds of results he needs to back up an NSF grant application.

Andy is a lost soul. His wife Lou was killed by a drunk driver several years earlier, leaving him to raise their two young daughters alone. He regularly talks to Lou's ghost, and finds no contradiction between his belief that life ends with death and entertaining an imaginary spectral apparition. It's a survival mechanism born of loneliness and disappointment. Hank Rosenblum, his doctoral advisor, a celebrated atheist, frequently disparages Lou's choice of college. He'd had higher hopes for him. That was before Rosenblum's fall from grace, a story that forms a significant and pertinent subplot.

The student, Melissa Potter, isn't the usual co-ed temptress of college novels. She's stocky and plain, not obviously clever, and religiously devout. She chose Andy at the urging of a contentious, spiritual student named Lincoln who has made it his personal mission to make sure someone keeps an eye on Andy's corrupting influence, going so far as signing up for Lou's hallmark class on Darwinism, known colloquially around campus as "There is No God," for a second time. Melissa is chagrined when Andy dawdles over agreeing to be her supervisor and not at all pleased when he adds books by Darwin, Dawkins and Rosenblum to her reading list.

The Explanation for Everything explores what can befall people when they seriously consider opposing viewpoints for the first time. This is especially true in the story of Anita Lim, the graduate student who so impressed Rosenblum but who ultimately lead to his downfall. Anita was making huge advances in a theory concerning the viral origins of DNA—she won a prestigious award usually reserved for researchers in mid-career—when she had a religious awakening that takes her in an unexpected direction.

Andy is in a vulnerable condition. His alcoholic next door neighbor, a single mother, has romantic designs on him, but he isn't reading the signals. Each day he pours out his vitriol in letters to the drunk driver who killed his wife, and he dutifully returns to Florida to make a victim impact statement each time the young man comes up for parole. He allows Melissa to get closer to him than he should, hiring her to babysit his daughters. He reads some of the books she supplied from her reading list and is comforted by a text written by her pastors. He begins to open up to the notion of God. He isn't a total religious convert, but he needs something to hold onto. His willingness to change his fundamental life philosophy, though, something he has clung to in the years since his wife's death, happens a little too easily to be entirely credible. The bulk of his change occurs over the course of a few evenings. He is seduced by the comfort the pastors promise—it's exactly what Andy needs to counter his stress-filled life.

On the other hand, his "monitor," Lionel, begins to take Andy's course to heart. The "message" of atheism—that the universe is a much more interesting place if you look into the myriad individual mysteries rather than accept a blanket explanation—begins to ring true to him, but it's a hard pill to swallow.

Melissa is something of an enigma. Her god is a just god more than a caring one. She encourages Andy's continued condemnation of the drunk driver and seems disappointed when Andy starts to feel guilty about prolonging the man's incarceration. The mostly chaste but still inappropriate relationship that forms between Andy and Melissa is also hard to credit. Perhaps most disappointing is the fact that Grodstein steers clear of any animated debate between the theist and atheist factions. When confronted by Melissa, Andy is unable to verbalize his thoughts, despite the fact that the scientific train of thought has been central to his life for many years.

Chalk that up, though, to reader expectation. Grodstein never promised this debate. Instead, she focuses on Andy's trials, and those of people close to him. These are well observed, especially his interplay with his two daughters, who have had to become wise and mature before their years.

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