Book Review: In the Beauty of the Lilies

In the Beauty of the LiliesIn the Beauty of the Lilies by John Updike

In the Beauty of the Lilies appears in a list of five books that bring science and Christianity together. The list was compiled by Greg Cootsona, who describes this novel as “an eloquent and challenging narrative of American life in the 20th century.” The list appears in the March 2018 issue of Christianity Today. That’s how I came to read In the Beauty of the Lilies.

John Updike’s genius and storytelling abilities are well documented. These stories are reminiscent of An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie. In some ways Updike is kinder to his characters than Dreiser is. I thought, for example, that Teddy Wilmot would end up like Clyde Griffiths in An American Tragedy, but he does not. Saying more than that would spoil the plot for those who have yet to read this novel.

Beyond the storytelling, Updike’s genius is revealed in the details that he includes about settings and contemporary events. I particularly enjoyed reading about Paterson, where I have been many times, in the opening story about Clarence Wilmot. Updike devotes an entire page to acknowledging the people, institutions, and published sources from whom he obtained the details he includes. Twenty-plus years after publication of In the Beauty of the Lilies, I don’t know how many of us have the attention span for all of the description, but it is still a pleasure to read.

Numerous philosophical and spiritual themes run through this novel. Among them are faith and the loss of faith, narcissism and the worship of beauty, betrayal and forgiveness, family loyalty, and the drive for success and wealth. In the end the temporal values and virtues in which we invest so much of ourselves are found to be hollow and impotent, but Updike does not provide us with a nicely packaged moral to these stories. Instead he provides us with dialectics that we must work through to arrive at our own judgments.

Thanks as always for stopping by!


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