Experience has taught me when it comes to books, sometimes you just have to take a chance. When I grabbed a copy of Lauren Grodstein’s 2013 novel The Explanation for Everything a few weeks ago during one of my visits to the public library I had no idea what I’d be getting into. Despite being the acclaimed author of two previous novels I’d never heard of her. With a tower of unfinished fiction stacked by my bed I figured the last thing I needed was one more novel from the library. But the novel’s description of a college biology professor and his contentious interactions with a pair of intelligent design proclaiming undergrads made me optimistic. Taking the publisher’s bait I threw caution to the wind and grabbed Grodstein’s novel. After whipping through it in what seems like mere days, I’m happy to report that I enjoyed it.
Set at a small New Jersey liberal arts college not far from Philadelphia, The Explanation for Everything is the story of Andy Waite. Waite is a professor of Darwinian evolution who’s currently involved in a research project involving lab rats to probe the genetics of human alcoholism. With the success of his project hanging in the balance, after years of hard work he’s on the finally on the cusp of being granted academic tenure. But he’s also a 49-year-old widower and father of two young girls. On top of it, he’s haunted on an almost daily basis by the memory of his dead wife whose life was tragically cut short by a drunk driver.
Enter a pair of evangelical undergrads. One is Lionel, an unrelenting zealot who keeps taking Waite’s Darwinian evolution seminar (jokingly dubbed “There is No God’) just to confront Waite’s atheism and proclaim his particular Christian beliefs. The other is Melissa, a transfer student from a working class family who wants Waite to sign off as her adviser for her independent study project proclaiming the scientific validity of intelligent design. Without saying too much, let’s just say before the novel’s end lines between belief and unbelief and student and mentor get a bit, well blurred.
Foremost, this isn’t just a novel about religious belief and science but also people. It’s about the baggage of the past and how it impacts our current lives, regardless if we acknowledge it or not. It’s also about relationships, be they good, bad or somewhere in between. It’s also about the challenge to find meaning in life and how others help shape the parameters of that search. It’s also a surprisingly good novel and I have no problem recommending it to readers of any or even no religious belief.