In the Beauty of the Lilies

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Overview

John Updike's seventeenth novel begins in 1910, and traces God's relation to four generations of an American family, beginning with Clarence Wilmot, a Presbyterian clergyman in Paterson, New Jersey. He loses his faith, and becomes an encyclopedia salesman and a motion-picture addict. The remainder of Clarence's family moves to the small town of Basingstoke, Delaware, where his cautious son, Teddy, becomes a mailman. Faithless himself, Teddy marries a good Methodist girl and begets Esther, whose prayers are always...
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In the Beauty of the Lilies: A Novel

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Overview

John Updike's seventeenth novel begins in 1910, and traces God's relation to four generations of an American family, beginning with Clarence Wilmot, a Presbyterian clergyman in Paterson, New Jersey. He loses his faith, and becomes an encyclopedia salesman and a motion-picture addict. The remainder of Clarence's family moves to the small town of Basingstoke, Delaware, where his cautious son, Teddy, becomes a mailman. Faithless himself, Teddy marries a good Methodist girl and begets Esther, whose prayers are always answered; she becomes an object of worship, a twentieth-century goddess. Her neglected son, Clark, makes his way back to the fiery fundamentals of Protestant piety. The novel ends in 1990, in Lower Branch, Colorado, and on television. Taking its title from the "Battle-Hymn of the Republic," In the Beauty of the Lilies spins one saga, one wandering tapestry thread, of the American Century.
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Editorial Reviews

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.)
Library Journal
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.
Jim Paul
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

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

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780449911211
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/28/1997
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 576
  • Sales rank: 493,984
  • Product dimensions: 5.45 (w) x 8.23 (h) x 1.21 (d)

Meet the Author

John Updike was born in 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954, worked for a few years on the staff of The New Yorker, and since 1957 has lived in Massachusetts. He is the father of four children and the author of some forty books, including collections of short stories, poems, and criticism. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the American Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Rabbit at Rest was recently awarded the Howells Medal, by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, for the most distinguished work of American fiction of the last five years.

Biography

With an uncommonly varied oeuvre that includes poetry, criticism, essays, short stories, and novels, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner John Updike helped to change the face of late-20th-century American literature.

Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Updike graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1954. Following a year of study in England, he joined the staff of The New Yorker, establishing a relationship with the magazine that continued until his death in January, 2009. For more than 50 years, he lived in two small towns in Massachusetts that inspired the settings for several of his stories.

In 1958, Updike's first collection of poetry was published. A year later, he made his fiction debut with The Poorhouse Fair. But it was his second novel, 1960's Rabbit, Run, that forged his reputation and introduced one of the most memorable characters in American fiction. Former small-town basketball star Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom struck a responsive chord with readers and critics alike and catapulted Updike into the literary stratosphere.

Updike would revisit Angstrom in 1971, 1981, and 1990, chronicling his hapless protagonist's jittery journey into undistinguished middle age in three melancholy bestsellers: Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest. A concluding novella, "Rabbit Remembered," appeared in the 2001 story collection Licks of Love.

Although autobiographical elements appear in the Rabbit books, Updike's true literary alter ego was not Harry Angstrom but Harry Bech, a famously unproductive Jewish-American writer who starred in his own story cycle. In between -- indeed, far beyond -- his successful series, Updike went on to produce an astonishingly diverse string of novels. In addition, his criticism and short fiction became popular staples of distinguished literary publications.

Good To Know

Updike first became entranced by reading when he was a young boy growing up on an isolated farm in Pennsylvania. Afflicted with psoriasis and a stammer, he escaped his self-consciousness by immersing himself in drawing, writing, and reading.

An accomplished artist, Updike accepted a one-year fellowship to study painting at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts at Oxford University. He decided to attend Harvard University because he was a big fan of the school's humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon.

One of the most respected authors of the 20th century, Updike won every major literary prize in America, including the Guggenheim Fellow, the Rosenthal Award, the National Book Award in Fiction, the O. Henry Prize, the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Union League Club Abraham Lincoln Award, the National Arts Club Medal of Honor, and the National Medal of the Arts.

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    1. Also Known As:
      John Hoyer Updike (full name)
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 18, 1932
    2. Place of Birth:
      Shillington, Pennsylvania
    1. Date of Death:
      January 27, 2009
    2. Place of Death:
      Beverly Farms, MA

Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2009

    Eloquent

    Beautifully and eloquently written. A bit slow at times, but coming together in the end. A pleasure to read a book with such lovely use of language.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 1999

    A decent but cream puff-y read.

    Of course, if you are gaga about John Updike, you'll probably love this book. This one's filled with over-the-top characters doing, thinking or saying absurd things (more and more as the pages go by). It's colorful and fun to read. But... don't expect your life to be changed. It's kind of like reading that inside back page of a magazine that features some funny story or opinion or parting shot. It's fluffy and amusing. Then you want to go brush your teeth.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted May 18, 2011

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    Posted February 10, 2009

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    Posted June 7, 2009

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