Madapple: A Taste of Science and Religion

A few months back I was intrigued by a booknote in Vanity Fair about Christine Meldrum's first novel, Madapple (published by Knopf--not a bad way to start!). It piqued my interest because the note indicated that the story--aimed at a young adult market--intertwined issues of science and religion. This past week I finally had a chance to read the book, which was entertaining, intriuging, a bit maddening, and in the end, only slightly disappointing.

The story is certainly not the usual fare, eluding the categories of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery, while dabbling in all three. Set in rural and smalltown Maine, the narrative revolves around a girl named Auslag who is part of an immigrant family from Denmark. The story also plays with time, starting in 1987, but then regularly transporting us to a courtroom in 2007, to dip back to events in 2003 and 2006. In some ways, Meldrum is at her best in the courtroom scenes (she's a trained lawyer), and the regular visits to this setting help make for chapters that come in short bursts--no doubt welcome by many young readers (and not a few older ones). The other "device" that Meldrum uses to weave the story is a persistent thread of botany. The life of Auslag and her mother revolves around a dizzying array of plants and flowers found in the the region (including "madapple"). At times this felt like an MFA gimmick, but it works and rarely feels forced. It not only moves the story forward and helps it to hang together, it is also an important means by which nature and science make themselves felt in the story--though "science" isn't the only way to respond to the "nature" that is plantlife.

And that, it seems, is at the heart of Meldrum's interest: if science and religion are at play in the story, they are on the stage as alternative explanations of phenomena. If Madapple deals with issues of science and religion, it's because the book is more fundamentally dealing with what Paul Ricoeur described as "the conflict of interpretations." Phenomena press upon us, nature pushes back against us, and we are pushed to render explanations, interpretations, and construals of what's happening. For instance, a strange and "unexplained" pregnancy can be variously described as a virgin birth or a rape. Meldrum tackles the conflict of interpretations at various levels throughout the story, and persistently offers episodes of religion and science as competing explanations--but also a couple of hints that they might be complementary explanations of the same phenomenon. On top of this, she is weaving a story that has just enough mystery and intrigue to keep you turning the pages (though a couple of things were telegraphed a bit too much). My disappointment stemmed from two trends in the book: First, methinks Meldrum caught a bit of the Dan-Brown-syndrome, displaying a sophomoric fascination with Gnosticism, the Essenes, and the Gospel of Thomas that is meant to shock and scandalize. (It was also weird to read a novel with a bibliography--what is that saying?) Second, I don't think Meldrum let's the conflict of interpretations persist. The novel shrink back from letting the conflict go "all the way down," so to speak (I won't hint in which direction in tips so as not to ruin the story of you); there could have been resolution to the story without bringing definitive resolution to the conflict of interpretations.

Those concerns aside, it's a great summer read, easy enough for the beach, and something you can pass along to your teenager--as I just did.