Friday, September 6, 2013

Book Review: "The Explanation for Everything" by Lauren Grodstein

I've often remarked that at times I just want to enjoy a book or movie simply for what it is without thinking about heavier issues, or dissecting how plausible the plot may actually be. Sometimes I just want to laugh, or cry, or be transported into some fantastical place or time, without considering deeper meaning. The converse, however, is also true—sometimes I enjoy books or movies that make me think, that stretch my mind beyond simply appreciating the talent that went into the work's creation, and perhaps force me to consider different perspectives or ideas.

Lauren Grodstein's new novel, The Explanation for Everything, definitely falls into the latter category. Andy Waite is a biologist at a small New Jersey college. He is a diehard evolutionist, having learned from one of the foremost experts on the topic while he was a graduate student at Princeton. But Andy's life hasn't gone the way he planned—he's raising his two young daughters on his own following the sudden death of his wife several years ago, he's worried about getting tenure, and he's trying to make the results of his years of research make enough sense to be worthy of a major scientific grant.

Andy teaches a biology course called "There is No God." While rarely students try to challenge what he teaches, every so often he has a student express dissent about the Darwinian and other scientific theories he introduces them to. One day he is approached by Melissa Potter, a transfer student, who asks Andy to direct her independent study. But it isn't any theory Melissa is interested in pursuing—her independent study will focus on intelligent design, the idea that the creation of the universe and science must have been the work of an intelligent designer, or God. Melissa's course of study is in direct contrast to everything Andy has taught and believed for years.

As Andy struggles with the everyday challenges of raising two daughters on his own, trying to further his career, and dealing with the memories of his wife, he begins to wonder if everything that he has put his belief in might not be as black and white as he has thought. Is there a God? Should we put our faith in a creator, instead of in science? This book explores both sides of the debate, and wonders if a little faith is truly what we need to survive.

I was tremendously intrigued by this book and think Lauren Grodstein is a tremendously talented storyteller. I liked the fact that she explored the ideas of evolutionism and intelligent design without ultimately saying whether one is right and one is wrong, instead allowing you to make your own conclusions. While Andy at times was a little bit passive (understandably), I thought the struggles his character went through were moving and truly human. And when the book dealt with his own questions of faith and trust, the story really resonated with me.

Although there were a few subplots in the book, one involving Andy's neighbor and one involving an outspoken student, that I didn't feel were fleshed out as much as the rest of the story, I found this book very compelling without being heavy handed. Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Grodstein's previous novel, A Friend of the Family, one which also raised questions for me while drawing me into the plot, I am a definite fan of her storytelling ability, and I look forward to continuing to watch her career progress.

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