From the Publisher
“Dazzling . . . a book that forces us to reassess the American Dream and the crucial role that faith (and the longing for faith) have played in shaping the national soul.”—The New York Times
“Stirring and captivating and beautifully written . . . This is the Updike of the Rabbit books, who can take you uphill and down with his grace of vision, his gossamer language, and his merciful, ironic glance at the misery of the human condition.”—The Boston Globe
“Updike’s genius, his place beside Hawthorne and Nabokov have never been more assured.”—George Steiner, The New Yorker
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The spiritual and sexual malaise of a multigenerational American family is the focus of Updike's masterful novel, a six-week PW bestseller. (Jan.)
An elder statesman of American letters here tells of four generations of Wilmots, who run the gamut from preacher to encyclopedia salesman to movie star.
John Updike's seventeenth novel is a sprawling family saga that traces four generations of the God-struck Wilmot clan. Late in his career, Clarence Wilmot, a Presbyterian minister, suddenly loses his faith in God. Clarence's principled resignation from his ministry plunges his family into poverty, and he is reduced to selling encyclopedias door-to-door and going to movie matinees for comfort. His son, Teddy, having witnessed his father's failure, rejects God as well and lives out a cautious existence as a mailman in a small town in Delaware. In the book's third section, Teddy's daughter Essie, raised in small-town security and love, full of "this joy at being herself instead of somebody else," feels inexplicably bound to both God and the movies, and she grows up to become a movie star in the Clark Gable-Gary Cooper era. And Updike brings this novel's interrogation of faith full circle when Essie's troubled son, Clark, ultimately flees L.A., joins a Christian cult in Colorado, and is killed in a thinly-fictionalized version of the Branch Davidian debacle.
Updike seems utterly at home in the first half of In the Beauty of the Lilies --the title is taken from The Battle Hymn of the Republic -- describing the daily round of middle class life in the early part of this century. His filigreed style, best suited to set-piece description and slow character development, is often reminiscent here of American naturalists such as Wharton, Howells or Dreiser, who took for their canvas society as a whole and for their subject, the subtle, mostly psychological crystallization of an individual's fate. In Clarence's fall from grace and especially in his son's consequent habitual timidity, Updike finds suitable subjects, characters who meditate on "the bowfront sideboard with its flaking veneer of curly cherry."
But as the book proceeds toward the final part of the century, Updike seems at sea in the world of condoms and Uzis and soundbytes. The cult's beliefs and Clark's submission to Jesse, the group's David Koresh-like leader, are unconvincing, and the conversion itself is passed over. "Clark could not remember when he had decided to believe in Jesse," Updike writes. "The big man had just stepped into him like a drifter taking over an empty shack." Compared with Updike's almost Jamesian delineating of Clark's great-father's loss of faith, this evasion at the end leaves a reader wondering whether Updike's heart is still in the book, and whether he can manage to care about these contemporary characters. --Salonl