The Explanation for Everything: A Novelby Lauren Grodstein
There is nothing inherently threatening about Melissa, a young evangelist hoping to write the definitive paper on intelligent design. But when she implores Andy Waite, a biology professor and a hardcore evolutionist, to direct her independent study, she becomes the catalyst for the collapsing house of cards surrounding him. As he works with Melissa, Andy finds that… See more details below
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There is nothing inherently threatening about Melissa, a young evangelist hoping to write the definitive paper on intelligent design. But when she implores Andy Waite, a biology professor and a hardcore evolutionist, to direct her independent study, she becomes the catalyst for the collapsing house of cards surrounding him. As he works with Melissa, Andy finds that everything about his world is starting to add up differently. Suddenly there is the possibility of faith. But with it come responsibility and guilt—the very things that Andy has sidestepped for years.
Professor Waite is nearing the moment when his life might settle down a bit: tenure is in sight, his daughters are starting to grow up, and he’s slowly but surely healing from the sudden loss of his wife. His life is starting to make sense again—until the scientific stance that has defined his life(and his work) is challenged by this charismatic student.
In a bravura performance, Lauren Grodstein dissects the permeable line between faith and doubt to create a fiercely intelligent story about the lies we tell ourselves, the deceptions we sustain with others, and how violated boundaries—between students and teachers, believers and nonbelievers—can have devastating consequences.
Praise for A Friend of the Family
“Unfolds with suspense worthy of Hitchcock . . . [Grodstein] is a terrific storyteller.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Gripping . . . [Grodstein] has succeeded in shattering the image of surburban happiness.” —Chicago Tribune
"Horrifyingly plausible and deeply poignant,A Friend of the Familywill leave you shaken and chastened—and grateful for the warning.” —The Washington Post Book World
"Involving at every level: character, plot, language. one of the more complicated portraits of a father’s love for his son we’ve ever read . . . highly recommended.” —McSweeney's
“Grodstein’s harsh, honest prose makes this haunting tale worthwhile.” —People
Andy Waite is just about holding his life together, trying to raise his two young daughters after his wife, Louisa, was killed by a drunk driver. As a biologist, Andy devotes himself to researching the effects of alcohol on laboratory mice. He is also obsessed with preventing the guy who killed Louisa from being paroled. At the mediocre college in southern New Jersey where he teaches, Andy offers a class called "There Is No God" on evolutionary biology. Most of his students are apathetic, except for a few evangelicals who strongly disagree with him. Then a persistent undergraduate named Melissa persuades him to sponsor her independent study project on intelligent design, and Andy reluctantly agrees. As Melissa becomes less sure of her religious convictions, Andy reevaluates his ideas about belief and forgiveness. VERDICT Many novelists explore love and loss, but Grodstein (A Friend of the Family) adroitly tackles big questions about faith and science, guilt and responsibility, punishment and healing. This engaging, and provocative novel is hard to put down. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 6/24/13.]—Leslie Patterson, Rehoboth, MA
In her fourth novel, Grodstein (A Friend of the Family, 2009, etc.) writes of loss of love and belief. Andy Waite's a biology professor at Exton Reed, "eleven hundred students and forty-two acres of crumbling quad hidden at the ass end of New Jersey." Andy loves teaching a class entitled "There Is No God," a Darwinian homage. Andy's mentor was a notorious Richard Dawkins–like professor, Hank Rosenblum. But Andy's morose; his wife, Louisa, was killed by a drunken driver. He does have two precocious daughters, and tenure's imminent, and there's a possible National Science Foundation grant, one related to studies about alcohol and the brain. Louisa's death explains his research, but nothing rational explains his agreement to mentor Melissa Potter's independent study: an objectivist argument for intelligent design. Images of Louisa linger as Andy interacts with Sheila, divorced neighbor and recovering alcoholic. As his emotional relationship with Melissa skates toward intimacy, Andy is plagued by doubts--over his project's validity after befriending Sheila; over his unbending opposition to parole for the young driver who killed Louisa; and over his rigidity as Melissa's warmth and generosity make real the power of spiritual belief. Rather than offering the works of St. Augustine or C.S. Lewis as rationalizations for belief, Grodstein offers the homilies of a fictional local pastor; it's a bit of an easier road, but her narrative sparkles with irony and wry observation. A fundamentalist student, Andy's vocal opponent, loses his faith. Rosenblum's overbearing prodding of a brilliant student who rejects science for marriage to a pastor results in her suicide. As the possibility of the divine sparks emotions Andy cannot comprehend, he learns he's caught up in another person's experiment. A college professor, Grodstein is perfect with her description of campus tremors radiating after a colleague strays from conventional wisdom. While Melissa's motivations and actions are sometimes contradictory and counterintuitive, Grodstein's portrait of Andy is spot-on, as is that of the evangelical student, Sheila, Rosenblum and the minor characters. A rumination on love and loss, faith in reason and faith in the divine.
“Very smart and touching and unexpected.” Tom Perrotta, author of The Leftovers and Little Children
“At once a novel of ideas and a deeply felt story of love, loss, hope, and the healing powers of forgiveness, The Explanation for Everything is a provocative, moving story, and a beautifully written one.” Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion
“Engrossing . . . You’ll likely close the book with a new perspective on faith, justice, mercy, and the difficulty of holding a moral high ground.” Bust
“Why do any of us act the way we do? Is it our beliefs or our biology that shapes us? Lauren Grodstein considers this eternal question through the story of Andrew Waite, scientist, father, widower, struggling to raise two daughters, living with the ghost of his wife, facing a test of his faith in science. There are no easy answers here, just the honest complexity of human beings trying their best to be good people. The Explanation for Everything is moving, beautiful, and wonderfully funny.” Victor LaValle, author of The Devil in Silver
“Lauren Grodstein proves herself a master storyteller. The Explanation for Everything tackles the tough topics: healing after loss, the relevance and possibility of the divine in our lives, the gilded shackles of academic life, and life in Southern New Jerseyall while always being terrifically entertaining. I want everyone I love to read it.” Ben Schrank, author of Love is a Canoe
“A well-crafted story of wayward souls searching for forgiveness, healing and personal truth.” Family Circle
“Grodstein handles everything with a subtle wit, managing to skewer both the ultraconservative and the ultraliberal without making either seem absolutely wrong. Both the tone and the plot of the grieving professor finding answers in science are reminiscent of Carolyn Parkhurst’s Dogs of Babel.” Booklist
“Her narrative sparkles with irony and wry observation . . . Grodstein’s portrait of Andy is spot-on, as is that of the evangelical student, Sheila, Rosenblum and the minor characters. A rumination on love and loss, faith in reason and faith in the divine.” Kirkus Reviews
Praise for A Friend of the Family:
“Unfolds with suspense worthy of Hitchcock . . . [Grodstein] is a terrific storyteller.” The New York Times Book Review
“Gripping . . . [Grodstein] has succeeded in shattering the image of surburban happiness.” Chicago Tribune
"Horrifyingly plausible and deeply poignant, A Friend of the Family will leave you shaken and chastenedand grateful for the warning.” The Washington Post Book World
"Involving at every level: character, plot, language. one of the more complicated portraits of a father’s love for his son we’ve ever read . . . highly recommended.” McSweeney's
“Grodstein’s harsh, honest prose makes this haunting tale worthwhile.” People
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Read an Excerpt
The EXPLANATION for EVERYTHING
By LAUREN GRODSTEIN
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILLCopyright © 2013 Lauren Grodstein
All rights reserved.
The first time Andy met Louisa, she was covered in blood. He was a bit bloodied himself, having just suffered a minor bicycle accident where Nassau intersects with Mercer and nobody can see himself coming or going. It was a Sunday morning in 1994, and Andy was wearing the ridiculous clothing he'd let himself get talked into by the cute salesgirl at Kopp's, purple spandex shorts—"junk-huggers!" Rosenblum hooted—and a black and silver nylon shirt. Anyway, he'd been daydreaming, yes, but he was reflexively careful at that intersection. And then an Audi out of nowhere, some cursing, an unnecessary ambulance, and now here he was, cradling what was almost certainly a broken wrist and thinking about his dissertation and the way the Mercer County emergency room smelled like urine and paint. The orange plastic chair was hard under his butt; his bicycle-friendly spandex shorts offered no padding whatsoever.
Then, as CNN began to rotate through yet another story on O.J. Simpson, this girl sat down next to him, hair trailing down her shoulders and around her face, the most magnificent sample of human hair he'd ever seen. Brown and gold streaks and some blond in there too, curls and waves, like in a magazine. The face wasn't bad either, as far as he could tell from profile: a nice curve of the cheek, a slightly oversized, bumpy nose, a full mouth. But it was that hair he couldn't stop looking at. He had the absurd compulsion to stick his hands in it, and was grateful to his probably broken wrist for stopping what would have otherwise been a sure breach of etiquette.
She was not looking at him. Her left hand was wrapped in red-stained gauze, and she had blood on her white T-shirt, and blood on her jeans.
"What are you here for?" he asked. The question was absurd, but he felt that if he talked to her, he would almost certainly not stick his good hand in her hair, or, if he did, conversation would offer him an opportunity to first ask permission.
She turned her head. The face was prettier straight on than it was in profile, nice eyes, the shape of almonds, and irises the color of almonds too, and the bumps in the nose receded as a matter of perspective. She had small, shell-like ears, each one rimmed with stud earrings. She smiled. "I cut myself."
"Right," he said. She smiled at him again, and for the first time since the Audi, he didn't think, even obliquely, about his wrist. "How so?"
"Opening a can of caviar. Isn't that ridiculous? I think I cut a cephalic vein. The shit will not stop bleeding." She looked down at her bandaged arm, sighed heavily.
"A cephalic vein, huh?" he said. "Interesting." Here Andy was thinking of the Latin word cephalicus and trying to show off. "Isn't that a vein in your head?"
"Your arm," she said, holding out hers. It was a thin, freckled arm, finely covered with reddish gold hairs, except for the part that was wrapped in reddening gauze.
"But cephalization is the formation of neural structures in the head." He knew this from his biology training. "So that doesn't make any sense, that it would be in your arm."
"And yet it is."
"But that doesn't make sense." Why was he fighting with her? "Are you a biologist?"
She shook her head. "I'm actually a nurse," she said. "In Philly. Which is too bad, because if I were in Philly I'd probably get some kind of professional courtesy. But of course I have to cut myself in Princeton, where nobody knows me. And so," she said, grandly, "I wait."
"Was it really a can of caviar?"
"Who would make that up?"
"Does it hurt?"
"No worse than your wrist," she said, looking at the wrist he was cradling. Her gaze was pointed; his wrist was in his lap. Andy crossed his legs. Oh, these ridiculous bicycle shorts!
"How long do you think I'm going to wait, anyway?" she asked, raising her almond-colored eyes.
"I've been here since eight thirty."
"Christ," she said. "It's almost noon."
"Is it?" Could he say to her that time stopped the second he first caught sight of her and her hair? She leaned back against the chair, closed her eyes. She had long black lashes, thick like a paintbrush. She breathed in and out deeply, as though she were a person preparing to sleep. Andy hadn't spent time with a woman with anything like regularity in months. Most of his friends in the department were male, and Rosenblum, of course, and even the plurality of his students. How nice it was, he thought, to talk to a woman! To this beautiful woman!
"What are you doing in Princeton?" he asked, even though she gave no indication she wanted to keep talking.
"Boyfriend," she said, her eyes still closed.
"Oh," Andy said. He did not feel dejected, because he had never considered himself an actual candidate to become this woman's boyfriend; the fact that she already had one couldn't be a deterrent from a position he had never considered occupying. How could he ever be this woman's boyfriend? The women Andy dated were severe, prone to nervous breakdowns over their studies. When they cut themselves, it was usually on purpose. "Where is he now?"
"He had to study. He's got his math orals coming up."
"So he just dropped you here?"
"I know, right?" She opened her eyes. "It's probably time to get a new boyfriend."
But before Andy could follow that tantalizing lead—what kind of new boyfriend and where would you go looking for this new boyfriend?—a woman with a clipboard appeared in the doorway to the examining room. "Waite? Andrew Waite?"
"Is she telling you to wait?" the woman said. Lou. Lou asked him this. She was sitting up again, and the gauze around her wrist looked ever darker with blood, and he wanted to pick her up and carry her off to a better place or, at the very least, give her his place in line.
Instead, he said, "That's my last name. Waite."
"Oh," she said.
"Do you want my turn?"
She smiled at him again, gently, as though he were a fool.
"You look like you're in worse shape than I am," he said in a rush. "Seriously. I'll be fine. You should take my turn, you're bleeding to death."
She shook her head and a curl of that hair fell into her face. "That's nice," she said. "Thank you, that's really nice, but you should go ahead. I'm not going to die."
Andy felt himself heartened by this. This girl wasn't going to die. Louisa—he did not yet know she was Louisa—said she wasn't going to die. And he did not yet know that he shouldn't believe her.
"Okay," he said, and followed the beckoning of the woman with the clipboard, and when he turned to look at her one more time, she winked at him, and he was fairly certain he blushed back. He wished once more that he was wearing a different pair of shorts.
Hank Rosenblum, Andy's friend, mentor, and guide to all things masculine, who had been divorced four times yet paradoxically considered himself an expert on women, said that she had just been looking to flirt. In Rosenblum's opinion, women who said, "I probably need a new boyfriend" to the goobers breathing down their necks in emergency rooms were almost certainly just looking for a little affirmation, but still, he said, there was no reason Andy couldn't keep an eye out. In fact, Rosenblum said, if she had a boyfriend in the math department, he'd be happy to do a little spying on Andy's behalf. Although Rosenblum himself was a member of Princeton's biology department, he had a few friends in math he liked to hit up for statistical models every so often. Further, the mathematicians enjoyed a garden behind their building where a man could smoke a pipeful of tobacco in peace. Rosenblum liked to spend time there, identifying flowers with a pipe in his mouth. He fancied himself a gentleman horticulturist.
"So?" Rosenblum said, as Andy delivered a stack of graded papers—papers he'd graded painstakingly with his uninjured left hand. "You want me to find her for you?"
"I don't know," he said. "She's got a boyfriend."
"So that's it? You let her go?" Rosenblum was sitting amid the educated squalor of his office, files everywhere like the aftermath of a ticker tape parade, books on every surface, dead plants, a dead terrarium, an empty aquarium, an empty ashtray, and the detritus of his life as a celebrity: T-shirts, posters, and pins emblazoned with his face over the title of his most recent bestseller, Religion's Dangerous Lie.
Andy leaned back against Rosenblum's doorframe. He was already itching under his cast, and the thing was supposed to stay on for six more weeks. "I don't think I ever had her, Hank. I don't see how I can let her go."
Rosenblum raised his crazed eyebrows. "Well, for chrissakes, Andrew, sit down. Didn't your mother ever teach you it's rude to stand in people's doorways? Or don't people know that in Ohio?"
This was part of Rosenblum's cosmology—that Andy was a fatherless rube from the sticks (greater Cleveland) who needed a sophisticate like Rosenblum (who hailed from the most Jewish precincts of Brooklyn) to show him the ways of the world. Andy was one in a line of students to whom Rosenblum had taken a liking, cooked dinner for ("You ever try ahi tuna? No, idiot, it doesn't come from a can"), poured wine for, tried to train not only as a biologist but as a certain kind of bon vivant, one attuned to the pleasures of the world as much as the wonders of the microscope. Andy had proven himself a keen student—Rosenblum's major requirement, in a mentee, was that he be both bright and a touch sycophantic—and the fact that he was from Ohio, of all places, made Rosenblum that much more interested in Andy's transformation. "Ohio!" he would hoot, apropos of little. "Is there any state more depressingly nowhere than Ohio? Has anything great ever happened in Ohio? To anyone from Ohio? In the whole history of Ohio?"
"Paul Newman?" Andy would offer. "Neil Armstrong?"
"Hollywood!" Rosenblum would counter, self-righteous. "The moon!"
Rosenblum liked to take Andy out to eat on occasion at the finest restaurants in central New Jersey ("Which of course is like swimming on the finest beach in Siberia, but what can we do?") and took him to J. Press for a decent suit to wear to the Gene and Genome convention in Chicago ("We'll charge it to the department," Rosenblum said, rakishly, although Andy suspected he'd paid for it himself).
And of course, amid all this Pygmalion bustle, Rosenblum oversaw Andy's biology training. Andy was interested in gene theory, and Rosenblum, one of the premier American evolutionary biologists of his generation, guided Andy's research through generations of mice and endlessly revised papers. It was with Rosenblum that Andy published his first research, and it was under Rosenblum's careful supervision that Andy devised his dissertation thesis around the relationship between specific brain structures and specific degenerative conditions. And it was under Rosenblum that Andy became an avowed and devoted atheist, seeking out, like his mentor, the superstitious gaze of the Believer wherever it roamed and staring it down in an unlosable game of chicken.
"Listen, my young friend," Rosenblum said, flicking something invisible from his cuff before turning his attention back to Andy's pathetic figure slumping into the seat opposite him. "Don't be a schmuck. This beautiful girl gives you an opening, you can't just let her go."
"It really wasn't such a great opening. And anyway, when I left the ER she was gone."
"So? You can't get a nurse to give you her records? Find out her address?"
"Hank, come on."
"You said she's a nurse in Philly. Did she tell you where?"
"Obviously if she had I would know where to look for her."
"Then we're going to have to go through the boyfriend," Rosenblum sighed. He'd put on weight in the years since Andy had met him, sat like a half-bald Buddha behind his rosewood desk. "This boyfriend's in math, you said? Okay, we'll start with math."
Rosenblum couldn't help himself—so loving, so pushy. "I can see who's administering the bastard's orals. Maybe we can fail him. You want me to fail him? A few people in math owe me favors."
"Jesus, Hank." Rosenblum was like that too—sneaky and morally unhinged. "I can ask around myself."
"Fine," he said. "Be that way." He shifted the stack of papers Andy had delivered, the ones he would never read. "But don't let her go, Andrew. How old are you, twenty-four? I had been married twice by the time I was twenty-four."
"That's not true."
"I was a father several times over."
"That's not true either."
"Get out of here," Rosenblum said. "I'm sick of you. Men like you, sensitive men. Really, you make me sick." But Rosenblum was smiling.
"Thanks, Hank. That's good of you."
"I mean it," said Rosenblum. "Get out of here. Go find your girl."
Which turned out to be much easier than snooping around the math department, not that Andy didn't snoop around the math department and its rose bushes, or dream up ways of stealing her ER records, or imagine combing Princeton's colonial avenues in search, Rapunzel-like, of a flash of that beautiful hair.
But none of this was necessary, because two weeks after first crossing her emergent path, there she was, in front of the Record Exchange, bending down to tie a shoe. He realized that since he'd been expecting to see her everywhere, he wasn't surprised when he finally did. She was wearing a jacket but a bandage peeked out from under it, enclosing her left hand. His own wrist itched madly. There she was, his girl, a fellow veteran from an imaginary war.
"Hey!" he said. "Hey!" He tried to tone down his grin but it was impossible, he was too happy, she was too lovely—and standing right there.
"Mr. Waite," she said. "Hello." She remembered his name! And she was smiling too. She gathered her hair back in her good hand and pushed it off her shoulders, but it immediately breezed back around her face. "I was wondering if I'd bump into you again."
"Visiting your boyfriend?"
"Walking to the train."
"You're going to walk?"
She sighed, kicked one of the bags at her feet. "He failed his orals. He's moving to New Mexico. I'm not going with him." She looked embarrassed. "So I think," she said, "that's the end of that. And therefore," grandly, "I walk."
"Ah," Andy said. He wanted to take this in but again that lunatic desire to plunge his hands into the depths of her hair (and this time, now, to cradle her face, to kiss her pillow-soft lips. Man, he was itchy). Had Rosenblum fixed this for him? The boyfriend's failure? He'd send him a box of cigars. "I'm sorry."
"Thanks," she said. She had a huge duffel bag and a roller suitcase. A lot of stuff. "It's probably fine. I mean, I think we'll both end up fine. And I need to spend more time in Philly anyway. Not that there's anything so great about Philly. But it is, you know, where I'm supposed to be working."
"I like Philly," he said. They grinned at each other again, stupidly. "What's your name, anyway?"
"I'm Louisa," she said.
"It is," she said. "But you should call me Lou."
And from there, it was easy. He felt, in fact, that the ease was his reward for everything that had been so hard from the beginning: escaping Ohio, finding a place at Princeton, finding a few friends, finding Rosenblum. Putting together a life for himself, learning to cook and clean and look after himself and live like a grown-up with no one but Rosenblum to show him the way, to help him figure out what mattered. He walked Lou to the train, hefting her duffel bag with his good hand down the bumpy side street to the jitney.
"How do I find you again? If you're not coming back to Princeton?"
"You call me," she said, making it sound like an instruction. He called her. She called him back. That easy. They were married at the Princeton Faculty Club in front of forty people a year later, her parents from Arizona, his mother from Ohio. Rosenblum did the officiating, which was a service he provided to all comers so that no man would be forced to interact with clergy in order to participate in a state institution, like marriage.
Lou promised she would nurture him. Andy promised he would take care of her for the rest of her days. They honeymooned in Paris, he wrote his dissertation in their tiny studio in Philadelphia, and once he was officially Dr. Waite, they moved to Miami for his postdoc. There, she worked twelve-hour shifts in the NICU of Kendall Regional. He performed EEGs on rats. At night, in the air-conditioned haven of their moderately priced apartment in Quail Run ("Whence the quail?" she would ask. "Where do they run?") they would lie together in their bed and imagine their future children.
Excerpted from The EXPLANATION for EVERYTHING by LAUREN GRODSTEIN. Copyright © 2013 Lauren Grodstein. Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are saying about this
“Lauren Grodstein proves herself a master storyteller. The Explanation for Everything tackles the tough topics: healing after loss, the relevance and possibility of the divine in our lives, the gilded shackles of academic life, and life in southern New Jersey—all while always being terrifically entertaining. I want everyone I love to read it.”
“Lauren Grodstein proves herself a master storyteller. The Explanation for Everything tackles the tough topics: healing after loss, the relevance and possibility of the divine in our lives, the gilded shackles of academic life, and life in southern New Jersey—all while always being terrifically entertaining. I want everyone I love to read it.” —Ben Schrank, author of Love Is a Canoe
"At once a novel of ideas and a deeply felt story of love, loss, hope, and the healing powers of forgiveness, The Explanation for Everything is a provocative, moving story, and a beautifully written one." —Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion
"Confident, tender, and engaging, Grodstein'sThe Explanation for Everythingis not so much a book about ideas but about the people whobelievethem: troubled academics, tired mothers, zealous teens. Harnessing the tension between our spiritual and rational instincts, Grodstein explores the dangers of certitude, the power of conviction, and the spiritual quality of love and loss, the way those feelings take us to the very brink of being, of questioning who we are and what we believe." —Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise
"Why do any of us act the way we do? Is it our beliefs or our biology that shapes us? Lauren Grodstein considers this eternal question through the story of Andrew Waite, scientist, father, widower, struggling to raise two daughters, living with the ghost of his wife, facing a test of his faith in science. There are no easy answers here, just the honest complexity of human beings trying their best to be good people.The Explanation for Everythingis moving, beautiful, and wonderfully funny." —Victor LaValle, author ofThe Devil in Silver
Meet the Author
LAUREN GRODSTEIN is the author of the bestselling A Friend of the Family, which was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year, a New York Times Editor’s Pick, and an Indie Next selection; the collection The Best of Animals; and the novel Reproduction Is the Flaw of Love. She teaches creative writing at Rutgers University.
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