Summary and book reviews of The Explanation for Everything by Lauren Grodstein

The Explanation for Everything

By Lauren Grodstein

The Explanation for Everything
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2013,
    372 pages.
    Paperback: May 2014,
    384 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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Book Summary

Lauren Grodstein's New York Times bestselling novel A Friend of the Family was hailed as "such an incisive diagnosis of aspirational America that someone should hand out copies at Little League games and ballet recitals" (The Washington Post). Now, Grodstein has created another insightful and gripping morality tale about love, loss, and faith.

Biology professor Andy Waite is finally beginning to pick up the pieces years after a drunk driver killed his wife. Between finishing his research and taking care of his young daughters, he has reasons to get through the day, and most days he does without falling apart. That is, until a young female student enters his life and turns it upside down. Melissa Potter is a passionate evangelist hoping to write the definitive paper about Creationism. She makes Andy's Darwinian certainty - and his grief - a personal challenge. As she chips away at his fervent atheism, he begins to fully realize the emptiness that he's been living with for too long. 

But when Andy's relationship with Melissa becomes romantic, the boundaries he's worked so hard to maintain - personally and professionally - blur. And soon it's unclear what kind of deliverance he needs.

The Explanation for Everything explores humankind's insatiable search for meaning, the risks and rewards of faith, and the salvation that love can offer us all. 

ONE

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...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. In The Explanation for Everything, Andy Waite is a confirmed atheist who doesn't believe in the supernatural, yet he's convinced he's being trailed by his wife's ghost. To what extent are these contradictory beliefs shaped by grief? To what extent do we all live with contradictions about our faith?
  2. Do you think Andy is a good professor? Why or why not?
  3. Andy keeps asking himself, and anyone else who will listen, whether God is a figure of mercy or justice—he doesn't believe God can be both. Are mercy and justice opposing qualities? How do they work to oppose each other in our culture?
  4. Why do you think Melissa Potter was so invested in changing Andy's mind about religion? Were her intentions fueled by ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

An atheist herself, Grodstein needs to be lauded for taking on such a loaded topic. She has that most generous gift every writer needs: empathy. Yet sometimes in her eagerness to do right by everyone, the book is too earnest, too indecisive, not willing enough to take sides. But Grodstein aims to level the playing field, giving them equal airtime - which is a good thing – however, we want a good fight that we ultimately don’t get...Despite these drawbacks though, Explanation succeeds in showing how important faith is in holding together the lives of millions.   (Reviewed by Poornima Apte).

Full Review Members Only (1124 words).

Media Reviews
Family Circle

A well-crafted story of wayward souls searching for forgiveness, healing and personal truth.

Publishers Weekly

The cultural clash engineered by the author opens as fresh and diverting, but gets bogged down in improbable plot turns involving Andy's neighbor and Melissa's megachurch. Heady discussions about God between Andy and Melissa feel as unrealistic as their romance, leaving a void where a lively debate should have been.

Booklist

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.

Author Blurb Ben Schrank, author of Love Is a Canoe
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.

Author Blurb Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion
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.

Author Blurb Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise
Confident, tender, and engaging, Grodstein's The Explanation for Everything is not so much a book about ideas but about the people who believe them: 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.

Author Blurb Victor LaValle, author of The Devil in Silver
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.

Reader Reviews
Dorothy T.

Doesn't live up to its title
First of all, I recognized this as contemporary "literature" by the often and unnecessary use of vulgar language--it seems to be the norm now. That should have also been the clue that this novel would not turn out the way I would have liked...   Read More

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The Scopes Trial

John ScopesBiology professor Andrew Waite (the protagonist in The Explanation for Everything) had a predecessor in John Scopes, a 24-year-old high school teacher who decided to teach the theory of evolution in his Dayton, Tennessee high school classroom defying a then newly implemented state law banning this practice. The year was 1925, a time when jazz and Hollywood movies were believed to be corrupting influences on America's youth and the last thing the evangelical superiors in Tennessee wanted was a challenge to the word of God.

Taken aback by the Tennessee decision, The American Civil Liberties Union looked for teachers to become "test cases" - to teach the theory of evolution defying the state law. John Scopes was one such teacher. When ...

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