The Explanation for Everything by Lauren Grodstein – BOOK CLUB Discussion.

Welcome to BOOK CLUB, which I run with co-conspirator Nicole from Linus’s Blanket. Today we will be chatting about The Explanation for Everything by Lauren Grodstein, from Algonquin Books. For those of you reading this post, please remember that this discussion may contain spoilers.

Here is the publisher’s synopsis of the book:

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.

I may be updating this post with new questions and ideas over the course of the day.

Here we go:

  • First off, what were your general impressions of the book?
  • Is this a book you would have read had you not been reading it for a book club?
  • What did you think about the following characters?
    – Andy
    – Melissa
    – Sheila
    – Lou
    – Rosenblum
  • How did you feel about how faith was handled over all throughout the book (faith in God and/or science)?
  • How did you feel about where Andy ended up on the faith continuum?
  • What did you think of the way Grodstein incorporated the Anita Kim storyline?

Copies of The Explanation for Everything were provided to facilitate this discussion.

Reviews by participants: Love at First Book; Karen White
If you have reviewed The Explanation for Everything and are participating in today’s discussion, please include a link in the comment thread below and your review will be added here.

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47 comments to The Explanation for Everything by Lauren Grodstein – BOOK CLUB Discussion.

  • Will respond to questions later in the day; meanwhile, here’s a link to my review on Goodreads:
    http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/714510890

    • I thought it was well written too, but ultimately missing something that would have made it compelling.

    • I agree that the majority of the characters in this book were less than likable. Andy frustrated me, Melissa ticked me off, and I didn’t really care about Sheila one way or the other (aside from basic human caring about the alcoholism). I was fine with Andy being confused about things (it happens to all of us at least once), but I also didn’t like his apathy concerning the confusion.

      • You’re right: the characters weren’t ones I loved. . . and I was kind of upset with Lou at times, too, when she was “talking” from beyond to Andy. . . I didn’t love some of her opinions and thoughts, even though I liked her when she was described by Andy in general.

  • I may not have picked up this book aside from book club, but since posting my review on my blog, I’ve had a lot of clarity on why I had doubts about the book.

    Andy started to doubt his beliefs and wonder if there really was something bigger out there, a purpose besides science. This doubt just felt really unbelievable to me. Here

    • What happened to the rest of my comment??? Oy. . . Let me try to recreate this. . .

      Andy started to doubt his beliefs and wonder if there really was something bigger out there, a purpose besides science. This doubt just felt really unbelievable to me. Here

  • I appreciated Grodstein’s restraint, and at least in some ways it didn’t feel like the typical God vs. Science story (which I’m glad for).

    The synopsis really drew me in. I was really excited to read this. But I wasn’t aware of the author at all, so I’m not sure I would have discovered the book apart from book club.

    – Andy was a sympathetic character, I thought. But maybe that’s just because we’re inside his head? The beginning of his arc made sense to me but the end? Not so much.
    – I really wanted to like Melissa, but in the end I very much disrespected her. I feel like she used completely wrong methods in her pursuit.
    – I kind of wish we’d seen more of Lou, which probably doesn’t make too much sense. She recognized and admitted that there were things she felt that didn’t jive with what she believed academically.
    – Rosenblum Not terribly sympathetic, but I suppose he was consistent with himself. Although that kind of makes him flat, too.

    I feel like I missed something (maybe need to go re-read?) about how/when Andy went from potentially open to God to putting a lid on that and going back to his godless existence. Because of that, I’m not entirely sure of where he ended up on the continuum, even.

    The Kim storyline was really interesting to me, and I thought Grodstein’s way or presenting it was good.

    • I don’t think he went back to a totally godless existence. He wanted to believe that a god was the answer to everything because he thought it would make him more content, but in the end decided that he couldn’t credit a god with being The Creator. It sounded like he was still trying to believe in (a merciful) god, but in addition to science. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

      • I agree that they’re not mutually exclusive necessarily, but it still felt like after pushing his exploration, he backtracked a bit in the end. *shrug*

        • Oh, he did backtrack. He was attempting to give credit to god as a creator, but realized he just couldn’t do it. Religion was an experiment for him–could he bring himself to believe or not? He realized he could believe in a god, but not necessarily in god as a creator.

    • The ending felt sort of rushed, I wish we’d seen a little more clearly what his deal was at the end, but I agree with Heather that I think he backtracked, but ended up in a more in between position than he had been in before.

  • I have heard so much about Lauren Grodstein that I would have read it whether we chose it for BOOK CLUB or not. I was really excited to discuss this, and the topics all seem to be timely ones. The battle over religion and to some extent, science, have fueled so many personal and public conflicts.

    Overall, I felt like something was missing from the book. Andy’s situation as a single father who missed his wife was sympathetic, but I also didn’t find him to be particularly interesting. Hi anger was palpable, and that someone so mild mannered in other ways had such a fire, was intriguing but that was such a small part of the book. I liked the Anita Lim story but I found it jarring the way it was just dropped right into the middle of the book, and I had to figure out what it was. I felt like that part of the story could have been better integrated. There were very separate in that Andy didn’t have too much commentary.

    I didn’t feel like wither side had a compelling argument other than this is what they had grown up believing, and I guess that’s pretty much par for the course. I wanted the women to take more responsibility for themselves that they did. Andy was careless and adrift in his own grief, but I also though they were unreasonable in their expectations of him. He crossed a line with Melissa, but for her to act as if she were taken advantage of when she had her own agenda was suspect.

    • You’re right about the arguments, although I don’t know that Grodstein could have made either side’s argument more compelling without adding many more pages to the book. And if you think about the everyday arguments we see about religion, this is pretty much how they go. I would also like to read a novel in which the arguments are more fleshed out, though.

      • I was actually okay that the arguments weren’t more compelling. I think we drift into what we believe and don’t really have any strong proof other than what we have always believed or have been taught. I think that’s why neither was able to convince the other. I’m trying to think if I have run across anything with more concrete positions – that could be venturing too much into non-fiction territory.

        • Right. That’s what I was thinking, too. If a book had to get into all of the proof we have of evolution, it would be more nonfiction than fiction.

    • I was fine with the arguments not being super strong on either side. I don’t think she was trying to sway anyone with this book, just exploring how people find and lose faith, whether in God or in science. I agree about the Anita Kim story, it was good, but I wanted it to be inserted in a different way. I don’t know how, but not just dropped in like that.

    • I agree that Andy’s mild manner and yet strong anger was interesting; I wish we’d had a bit more of that.

    • I was disappointed that the Anita story wasn’t a little more controversial. . . and I mean that in the way that it sounded like it ruined Rosenblum. It still was bad for him as is, but I think I expected an illicit relationship or that he murdered her or something. Her story was a little anti-climactic for me, too.

  • I would not have picked this up if it weren’t for BOOK CLUB, but I’m glad I read it. I thought Grodstein did a great job balancing the two extremes of science and religion (meaning the hardcore, in-your-face evolutionists vs. the hardcore believers). I am especially impressed with how she handled the religious side of the argument considering she’s an atheist.

    I didn’t find Andy’s doubts unbelievable at all. It’s quite obvious that he’s going through some kind of midlife crisis. Nothing is working out for him, he’s lonely, he’s confused, and he’s just looking for comfort and a way to relieve some of the tension. I *might* have found it a bit unbelievable if he had given up science completely, but it doesn’t seem like that was his intention at any point. He was thinking of giving up his job, yes, and he was *considering* giving a god the title of Creator, but he ultimately doesn’t. Religion and science don’t need to be mutually exclusive. I know quite a few people who believe in both a god and evolution. I also know quite a few people who go to church just for the community (which in his loneliness was another thing I think Andy was looking for.)

    I both liked and didn’t like Rosenblum. I sympathized with him at the end while reading his last manuscript. I didn’t like his in-your-face, I’m-right-you’re-wrong approach to evolution vs. religion. I’m an atheist, but I don’t think telling people their faith is ridiculous is the way to go. If people want and need faith in a god and it makes them feel good, so be it. As long as people don’t use their religion as an excuse to treat others poorly, great.

    I’m not sure Grodstein could have done more with Lou considering the way the story was told and the length of the book. I *wish* I could have gotten to know her better, but the whole point is that Andy needed to come to his decision on his own. I thought it interesting that he believed in ghosts, but not in religion. Although, I’m sure there are lots of people out there who are the same way.

    I wasn’t fond of Melissa from the get-go. There was something sneaky about her, and her pushiness was as bad as Rosenblum’s in ways. I was also pretty disgusted at her wanting to report Andy in the end when she was the one who seemed like she was trying to seduce Andy from the outset. She didn’t get what she wanted, so that was her way of getting back at Andy. How crappy and immature.

    I really liked Lionel Shell, though.

    I don’t really have any feelings about Sheila one way or the other. I think that’s one part of the storyline that felt like Grodstein could have done more with. I felt like Sheila as a character was only there to move the plot along in certain places when Grodstein didn’t know how else to do it.

    I liked very much the way Grodstein incorporated Anita’s story. I found Anita’s story a bit odd, but again, not unbelievable. Anita convinced herself that a god existed and that her research couldn’t go on out of loneliness. Charles was the first person she had ever really connected with and everything about him finally made her feel happy and wanted.

    • I felt like I couldn’t necessarily tell Grodstein’s personal beliefs from the book (my guess would have probably been agnostic and/or culturally Christian), which I appreciated. She sort of got out of the ways of her characters.

    • I find myself agreeing with Heather on a lot of the questions.

      I found Rosenblum’s way of taunting Andy from the grave to be a bit disturbing, as well as his manic pursuit of Anita. I think I enjoyed Anita’s story the most. There was a purity to it, somehow.

      Sheila, on the other hand, I found to be muddy. Perhaps her schlumpiness was there to mirror Andy’s? It was interesting that the others in his department seemed to like her so much.

      I have to say I was surprised by Melissa’s turnaround in the end, but didn’t find it unbelievable. I have to admit to being in thrall with a professor in college. There is a certain headiness to the power you have over an older man – I knew there was manipulation on her part, but I didn’t guess that her goal was to convert him. Her final threat was a bit abrupt. It’s probably a good thing, though, that we don’t know exactly what actions she took.

    • I liked Lionel, too! He was such an honest, real character, one with such passion, whether he decided to believe or disbelieve.

  • Marie

    I really enjoyed this book, and have been surprised by so many unfavorable reviews online. The characters were not lovable, but on the other hand, that seems to be the norm with most people underneath the polished fronts they present to the world. The imperfections in the characters were part of why I liked the book. Ultimately, i feel that this served to emphasize that the issues in the book are not easily resolved as right or wrong, black or white. one character was without flaw, and no one was 100% “right”.

    • You’re right. Most things in life are not either/or. Which is why I sympathized with most of the characters, even if I didn’t necessarily like them.

    • I agree with you Marie, and I hope that came across in my review. I didn’t “like” the book as it pushed my buttons, but I think it was effective on many levels.

    • I have a feeling that a lot of this is in reaction to how people felt about A Friend of the Family. I think her writing and characterizations are lovely, but this is a really quiet sort of book, and I wasn’t really piqued by most of the characters. Andy had his moments where he was interesting, but he was really apathetic, and personally I have a hard time with that. I also wanted a little better integration with the stories going on. The trouble with Anita was hinted at, but then it was dropped in the middle of the book with no preamble. It was a mixed bag for me.

  • One thing I did like is how Grodstein illustrated that faith/belief is almost inextricably tied to relationship, community. In the particulars, it’s a bit sleazy in this book, but I think in general it’s also true.

    I, too, didn’t really care about Sheila. I think the alcoholism IRL vs. in the lab could have been a bigger part of the story (and interesting), but Grodstein took it another way. Which is fine, but it left Sheila as a character kind of hanging.

  • rhonda lomazow

    Thought it was well written but could not really connect to Andy I felt sympathy for him but never completely cared for him or any of the others.Scince it never emotionally brought me in I was disappointed

  • Good questions! I think I actually hit on most of them in my review: http://www.rivercityreading.com/2013/09/the-explanation-for-everything-by.html

    I touched on this a bit, but didn’t discuss it much in an effort to avoid spoiling things, but I would have been fine with Anita’s storyline if it weren’t for Lionel and vice versa. I just thought having three connected people all go through this radical transformation was overkill and took away from the validity of the changes in their beliefs.

    Overall, while I don’t think it’s a perfect novel, it was really readable, smart and unlike anything I’ve ever read.

  • Marie

    I would have expected Andy, as a scientist, to explore his religious options. The rather stereotypical version of Christianity represented in the book (that all-or-nothing, creationist vs. Evolution) is unfortunately what repels many scientifically-minded people from religion. There are many Christians who believe in God, as well as evolution. There is already such a stereotype that religion and free thought- questioning- cannot coincide.
    I enjoyed the book, but this is the one thing that really bothered me about it. I understand that the plot was built from the polarity of the creationist/ Darwinist contrast, but I feel that it would have been much more powerful had Andy actually used his questioning nature and done some exploration to find a belief system that encouraged questioning as well as faith.
    As it was, I was left feeling that Andy’s interest in religion was only due to his infatuation with the girl, as opposed to (as I believe he contributed it to be) the other way around. He wasn’t interested in her because she brought him to God, but rather he was interested in God only as a side-effect of his interest in her. One might even go as far as to say that Andy’s sudden interest in God was only his way, subconsciously perhaps, of justifying an emotionally intimate relationship with a student.

    • The way things were left I can see him going that way in the future, because he did seem like he still wanted to reconcile the idea of God with his firm evolutionary beliefs. He was raised as strictly atheist, so I am not surprised he didn’t have much sense of the nuance yet. I agree that his moving towards God did seem mostly prompted by Melissa, but I would argue that they both stemmed from his intense loneliness and general midlife crisis rather than the interest in God being a means to to justify his relationship with her. I found them both to be symptoms of something else.

      • To this point, I think I would have liked more of Andy’s thoughts on the nature of his relationship with ghost Lou. He was troubled by her existence, and she seemed disapproving, but was she only representative of how much he missed her? How he knows she would have reacted to his choices? A form of conscience? He seemed to accept her as a presence in her own right, which really can’t be explained in terms of his atheistic beliefs? She seemed to be a little bit if a bridge to faith. Or I would have liked to hear his explanation for why she made sense in his world.

        • Marie

          I was never clear on whether he was actually supposed to be experiencing the presence of a ghost, or if maybe it was more representative of a feeling of her presence.

          • My impression was that it was more representative, like he wanted to imagine her there, conjure her up. I don’t *think* he actually legitimately thought he could see her ghost, but I guess I’m not actually sure either.

  • I feel really bad that I was not able to comment here on the day, I was off the grid, and only catching up now. I also feel bad, as I usually always read the books I request. Because of the synopsis that sounded really good, I requested this book to take part in this discussions, and I ended up DNF it, I think this is the first time ever I DNF a book I requested for a blogging event! I gave up after 100 pages, thinking I was really wasting my time. I found it very superficial, though the issues at stake are very deep, and I’m very much interested in religious topics. I did not like the writing, the dialogues. My ultimate feeling is that the author should have worked longer on that book before publishing it. But since then, I have run into many bloggers expressing also their disappointment at this book.

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