Spanning 80 years and four generations, John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies is both a melancholy family saga and a melodramatic soap opera, a literary tour de force that should also delight readers of Belva Plain.
One muggy day in 1910, Clarence Wilmot, a Presbyterian minister in Paterson, N.J., realizes that he no longer believes in God. Meanwhile, across town, D.W. Griffith continues to crank out his latest motion picture starring Mary Pickford. An odd juxtaposition of events, but clearly significant. Always the moralist, Updike seems to be saying that with the ascendancy of a mass culture, traditional religious faith becomes nearly untenable.
Wilmot’s resignation from the ministry destroys his middle-class existence, impoverishing and humiliating his family. Wilmot’s son Teddy feels so traumatized by the family’s decline that he determines to play things safe, taking the first job he’s offered and marrying the first girl he dates. But his daughter Essie becomes Alma DeMott, a big-screen sex goddess. The novel’s portrait of her steady rise from beauty-pageant runner-up to magazine model to Hollywood player is smart, convincing, and refreshingly free of the usual sordid star-making baggage. It’s also great fun — Updike makes room for some witty, gossipy cameos by Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and Bing Crosby.
Like a recessive gene, the desire to believe, to have faith in something beyond just the physical facts, powerfully asserts itself in Alma’s son Clark. An aimless Hollywood brat, Clark comes under the spell of a messianic preacher named Jesse Smith and takes up residence at the Temple of True and Actual Faith, a mountain compound stockpiled with an arsenal. Think Branch Davidians, of course.
You keep hoping the novel’s fictional re-creation of the Waco standoff will have a different ending. But in the meantime you know full well that this long, beautifully observed and textured novel by arguably our greatest living writer has been leading to tragedy since the first page. As old Teddy Wilmot watches his grandson’s fate unfold on TV, he muses to himself, ”Families are mysterious things.” And who could argue with that? Teddy’s own family, thanks to Updike’s narrative brilliance, is not only mysterious, it’s indelible.