Reviews by title
Reviews by author
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
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.
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.
Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent
2013. All rights reserved.