“The first time Andy met Louisa, she was covered in blood,” begins Lauren Grodstein’s thought-provoking fourth book, The Explanation for Everything. Quickly, the reader learns that the two characters are meeting in the waiting area of an emergency room in Princeton, N.J., after enduring minor mishaps (a bike accident and an encounter with a kitchen knife, respectively).
By the next chapter, the narrative jumps forward 12 years; Andy Waite is seeking tenure at a small liberal arts college in southern New Jersey as well as a hefty, midcareer grant from the National Science Foundation. His life has changed radically since his first meeting with Louisa in the ER. After getting married and having two girls together, Andy is now a 40-year-old widower tenuously trying to hold his life together after a drunk driver kills Louisa.
Almost every aspect of his life is suffused by the sudden loss of his wife. Andy’s scientific research has moved from degenerative diseases to alcoholism. “He had spent the past five years at Exton Reed just, like, experimenting, trying to prove that the genetics of alcoholism lead to immutable behavior patterns,” writes Grodstein. A few pages later, the author writes in reference to Andy’s lab specimens: “Poor mice. They were the only animals whose alcoholism he was able to forgive—he knew the genetics behind it, after all—and he often found himself envying them their single-minded devotion to drinking, and their peace.”
Initially, what appears to be a traditional campus narrative of a widower professor transforms into a well-crafted debate about evolutionary science and intelligent design. Every third semester, Andy teaches a course provocatively titled “There Is No God (Special Topics in Evolutionary Biology: Ethics and Debate).”A majority of his students are often content to digest his theories of Darwin while the right-wing religious detractors on campus stay away.
During this particular semester, a couple of ardent believers come knocking on his office door. One is a transfer student named Melissa Potter who asks if she can sign up for an independent study with Andy; she is attempting to prove that there is some kind of science behind the evangelical underpinnings of intelligent design. Reluctantly, he signs on as Melissa’s academic sponsor—and their debate becomes an entangled relationship that opens up Andy’s way of seeing the world and experiencing the loss of his wife. In the process, Grodstein takes on this complicated subject matter and effortlessly dramatizes it into an engaging narrative of grief, faith, doubt and redemption.
“I’ve always been interested in evolution and evolutionary science,” explains Grodstein, “but I’m not a scientifically inclined person. I’m more of an ideal lay scientist because I find the topics so fascinating.” In order to prepare for the writing of The Explanation for Everything, Grodstein read up on the subjects by studying the giants—Richard Dawkins, Charles Darwin, C. S. Lewis, Francis Collins. In addition, she visited the science labs of Columbia University and Rutgers-Camden (where Grodstein teaches and directs the graduate MFA writing program) to observe the lab mice in their element and the precise mechanics of running electrodes into their tiny brains.
For the dynamics of the student/teacher relationship, Grodstein was able to draw loosely from her own experience. “I love talking to other writers,” she says about her position at Rutgers. “I like helping people to shape their own writing. I always see myself in them.” Though none of Grodstein’s relationships with students ever strayed from the realm of the platonic, some of the author’s closest friends are former students. “I started teaching at 22, so some of my students were close to my age. I can understand how a teacher can feel really fulfilled by a student/teacher relationship,” she says. “In the novel, that’s the way I envisioned Andy—he needed someone to offer new ways of seeing the world. He was trapped in his whole revengeful misery.”
The emotional tenor of the narrative is very much shaped by the shock of the unexpected death of Louisa and Andy’s ensuing grief. Andy’s former wife drifts in and out of the story, often like an apparition—always there, but not quite there. “The ghost was wearing what she always wore, a white T-shirt, a bloody bandage around her wrist,” writes Grodstein. “She had a different look on her face now, frank, apologetic. She was sorry she had died. She had wanted to live a long life with him and his girls. She should have buckled her seat belt. She should have been paying more attention to the road. Oliver McGee had been swerving, driving erratically. She had been taking a French fry from the bag. She had been dipping it in ketchup. She had never seen what was coming because she wasn’t paying attention.”
Seven years ago, Grodstein’s grandmother was hit by a car and killed. “She was the first person who died suddenly and left a hole in me,” says the author. “Even though she was 82 years old, she was very vibrant.” Her grandmother had gone to buy groceries for a family dinner. “A car blew a red light,” remembers Grodstein, “and she was gone. I felt like she was ripped from me too soon.” The author’s own grief certainly translates into an authentic portrait of what it is like to lose a loved one suddenly. “People learn to live with it,” says Grodstein. “It changes, but it doesn’t end.”
For her next project, the author is writing her first novel from the perspective of a woman. “I try to first think of the character rather than the gender,” Grodstein says. “What’s important is whether that character is strong enough to sustain an entire novel.”
Like many fiction writers, Grodstein attended a graduate writing program to hone her craft of character development and scene building; in her case, she attended Columbia University in upper Manhattan. There, Grodstein studied with several writers who continue to inspire her—Binnie Kirschenbaum (most recently of The Scenic Route), Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad) and Helen Schulman (This Beautiful Life)— particularly when it comes to balancing the writing, teaching and parenting equation. “It’s really hard to write around raising a child,” says Grodstein, whose son is now 5 years old. In order to write The Explanation for Everything over a 2 1/2 year period, she woke up at 5:00 or 5:30 most mornings. “It was grueling.” For inspiration and advice, Grodstein turned to Schulman and Egan, who are both working authors and mothers. “They told me that I could do this: You can have a family and be a writer. It’s not impossible.”
S. Kirk Walsh has written for Guernica, the New York Times Book Review, the Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. She is at work on a novel.