The Explanation for Everything

By Lauren Grodstein

Reviewed by Carolyn Burns Bass

In this intelligent and seductive novel of meaning and morality, Lauren Grodstein creates a story that challenges the deep-rooted dogmas we use to protect and provoke ourselves and others.  Begin with Andy Waite, a widower of two young daughters stunned by the senseless death of his wife six years past. A brilliant biologist coming up on tenure at an obscure liberal arts college, he’s on the brink of discovery. His popular “There is No God” class draws students predisposed to atheism in general and Darwinian evolution in particular, and is modeled by his narcissistic and estranged mentor who dropped out of academia following a devastating scandal with a student.  Onto this backbone Grodstein attaches a couple of limbs that propel The Explanation for Everything to an expected finish.

A new term begins and Waite surveys the students within the “There is No God” class, dismayed to see one young man, an awkward and disturbed fundamentalist Christian who has taken the class previously and has received special academic dispensation to take the class again. Through this outlier Waite must access responsibility for potential harm which academic challenges can bring upon unstable personalities. A second outlier in the form of a community college transfer student, the dumpy, but cheery, Melissa, provides the laboratory from which Waite is tested. Melissa is also a fundamental Christian on a mission, entraping Waite into serving as advisor to her independent study topic on the proof for intelligent design.

Lauren Grodstein in #litchat (photo: Nina Subin)

Lauren Grodstein (photo by Nina Subin)

Within this motif, The Explanation for Everything flourishes and the story breaks through with logical arguments in favor of intelligent design without preachiness or evangelical obstinacy. Melissa insinuates herself into Waite’s personal life a bit too easily, yet it’s this breakdown of walls that compel Waite’s breakthrough from grief. The consideration of faith in a designer’s hand propels him through the self-imposed maze of grief further than he’s achieved in the previous six years, yet a missive from his former mentor circles him back to the beginning where he escapes the maze of grief through the basis of his original thesis.

From the author’s website: Lauren Grodstein’s books include the novels The Explanation for EverythingA Friend of the Family, and Reproduction is the Flaw of Love and the story collection The Best of Animals. Her pseudonymous Girls Dinner Club was a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age. Her work has been translated into German, Italian, French, Turkish, and other languages, and her essays and stories have been widely anthologized. Lauren teaches creative writing at Rutgers-Camden, where she helps administer the college’s MFA program. She lives with her husband and son in New Jersey.

Follow Lauren Grodstein on Twitter: @LaurenGrodstein.

Read the chatscript from the #litchat session with Lauren Grodstein on November 15, 2013 here.

Carolyn Burns Bass is founder and editor-in-chief of LitChat. Read her complete bio here.