Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

One Man's Family Struggles with a Century of Change

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

One Man's Family Struggles with a Century of Change

Article excerpt

IN THE BEAUTY OF THE LILIES

By John Updike

Alfred A. Knopf

528 pp.,$25.95

John Updike's 17th novel is the four-generation saga of an American family, their changing fortunes, beliefs, and values. The title is taken from Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic," the great anthem of the Civil War expressing the belief that Union soldiers fighting and dying "to make men free" were following in the footsteps of Christ.

"In the Beauty of the Lilies" can be read as an extended meditation on the theme of values, that woefully overworked and underexamined term that has of late come to mean so many different things to different people.

The story begins in 1910 in Paterson, N.J., a town with a flourishing silk industry where the clip-clop of a farmer's horse-drawn wagon can still be heard making its way along Broadway. Clarence Wilmot, a conscientious Presbyterian minister in his 40s, finds himself in the uncomfortable position of no longer being able to believe in God.

Despite the fears of his devoted wife as to what will become of their family, and despite the well-meaning efforts of his church superiors to prevent his precipitate departure, Clarence feels unable to preach what he cannot believe. His principled decision to resign his post proves sadly impractical, however, and he spends his remaining years trying to sell encyclopedias door-to-door and escaping into the dark new palaces of silent fantasy called movie theaters that are cropping up all over.

In the next generation, the focus shifts to Clarence's youngest child, Teddy, a gentle, soft-eyed fellow who can't bring himself to embrace the faith that - as he sees it - failed his poor father. While Teddy's older brother and sister eagerly latch on to the go-getting ethos of the Jazz Age (the one becoming a financial speculator, the other a tough-talking flapper), Teddy doesn't quite fit in: "He didn't want to compete, and yet this seemed the only way to be an American." Eschewing the ratrace, Teddy marries a shy girl whose special qualities are overlooked by everyone else, and finds an unglamorous job that gives him a sense of security and of contributing to the community.

His daughter Essie - the Wilmot singled out for our attention in the next generation - is a lively girl blessed with the conviction that she is someone special: "Oh, she knew there were girls richer and famouser than she, like Shirley Temple and ... those two little English princesses, but fame and riches were things she could always have in the future, which was endless and tremendously large." Essie's faith in the future proves prophetic, and she grows up to be a famous movie star of the 1940s and 1950s.

With Essie's son Clark, the story comes full circle. In a somewhat dissolute, confused, Hollywood-kid's way, he is a young man in search of spiritual values. …

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