Updike's bold attempt at the generational saga--the first such novel of his long career--falls somewhere between George Eliot and John O'Hara, and doesn't scruple to provide a few of the simpler pleasures â€¦ la Judith Krantz or Harold Robbins. In tracing the private and public histories of four generations of the Wilmot family (originally) of Paterson, New Jersey, this ambitious and energetic, though occasionally muted, novel also delineates the growing secularization of American society in this century. It begins with the agonized realization of Presbyterian minister Clarence Wilmot that he no longer believes in God and must in conscience resign his ministry. The hardships subsequently endured by the enervated Clarence's surviving family are memorably encapsulated in his "sensitive" son Teddy's difficult progress to maturity, marriage, and fatherhood in the fractious 1920s. The focus shifts to Teddy's daughter Esther ("Essie"), an extroverted beauty who, like her father and grandfather before her, finds in the excitement of motion pictures a gratifying alternative to the mundane realities of life. Essie breaks into movies in the early 1950s and--as Alma DeMott--enjoys a long career. In the novel's concluding section, "Alma's" only son, Clark, in effect reversing his family's enthrallment by Hollywood, drops out of his mother's glamorous orbit and into fundamentalist Colorado commune and toward a violent destiny all too reminiscent of recent years' headlines. It all feels more than a bit hurried, and the impression of a crash course in modern US history is intensified by long, momentum-stopping catalogues in which the fruits of Updike's obviously diligent research are numbingly displayed. Still, this is Updike--and there's much to admire in the deep and thoughtful characterizations (especially of the tormented Clarence and confused Teddy), impish humor (the summary descriptions of Essie's films are a hoot), and dependably precise and fluent prose. On balance, a more than commendable effort from an established master whose preeminence has much to do with his exuberant willingness to keep trying new things.