(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

John Updike’s long-standing interest in religious issues and his continuing fascination with human sexual behavior are combined in this novel set in New England, the landscape that admirably served an earlier American novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne, for his investigation of similar subjects in his American classic The Scarlet Letter (1850). Told from the point of view of Roger Lambert, the novel presents an intriguing narrative of modern concerns with science and theology. Lambert, a divinity-school professor married for the second time and living happily in an older suburb near the university, is approached by Dale Kohler, a graduate student in computer sciences at the same institution. Dale wants Roger’s support in obtaining funding for a most unusual project: He wishes to use the university’s computer to prove the existence of God. After an impassioned conversation, Roger provides Dale with the information he needs to seek a grant from the theology school.

Dale has sought out Roger at the suggestion of Roger’s niece, Verna Ekelof. The daughter of Roger’s half-sister, Verna has fled the family home in Cleveland with her illegitimate mulatto child. Roger has had nothing to do with his niece, but at Dale’s insistence, he visits her; he is immediately attracted to her sexually, and the worldly-wise Verna takes advantage of his interest to manipulate him throughout the novel.

Roger’s efforts to help Verna finish her education provide him with opportunities to see her, and their family ties make it easy for him to invite her to...

(The entire section is 645 words.)