In the Beauty of the Lilies is divided into four sections of roughly similar lengths, each named for one of the novel’s central characters. The third-person narrator of each section has a limited point of view: that is, the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of the character for whom the section is named.
The “Clarence” chapter begins in 1910 in Paterson, New Jersey. Mary Pickford, the famous actress, is starring in a film being made nearby. It is a warm day, and Pickford faints on the set. At the same moment, a few miles away, Reverend Clarence Wilmot, a socially secure Presbyterian minister, feels “the last particles of his faith leave him . . . a visceral surrender, a set of dark sparkling bubbles escaping upward.” Clarence finds himself unable to serve a God in whom he no longer believes. Facing social humiliation and risking the loss of means to support his family, Clarence resigns his ministry. Three years later, the economy of Paterson stymied by labor unrest, Clarence ekes out a living peddling The Popular Encyclopedia door-to-door. In seriously reduced circumstances, Clarence finds comfort where he can: at the movies.
The “Teddy” chapter concerns Clarence’s youngest son, named for President Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy, however, lacks Roosevelt’s virility, his can-do spirit; he is quite happy staying out of harm’s way. After Clarence’s death, Teddy, his mother, and his sister are taken in by relatives in Basingstoke, an isolated northern Delaware town. Teddy, just graduated from high school, sees the move as a step down. The locals are “rubes.” Furthermore, there is the problem of what he should “do.” The son of an educated man, it would not do for Teddy to work in the local bottle-cap factory, and when he announces that he does not want to “sell anything, and I don’t want to teach anything . . . and I...
(The entire section is 774 words.)