In the Beauty of the Lilies

Last updated
First edition (publ. Knopf) InTheBeautyOfTheLilies.JPG
First edition (publ. Knopf)

In the Beauty of the Lilies is a 1996 novel by John Updike. It takes its title from a line of the abolitionist song "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The novel received the 1997 Ambassador Book Award for Fiction.


In the New York Times , critic Michiko Kakutani called the work “dazzling ... a book that forces us to reassess the American Dream.” [1]


Beginning in 1910 and ending in 1990, the novel covers four generations of the Wilmot family, tying its fortunes to both the decline of the Christian faith and the rise of Hollywood in twentieth century America. In her appraisal of Updike's work New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani wrote: "Mr. Updike’s stunning and much underestimated 1996 epic, ‘In the Beauty of the Lilies,’ tackled an even wider swath of history [than his Rabbit Tetralogy]. In charting the fortunes of an American family through some 80 years, the author showed how dreams, habits and predilections are handed down generation to generation, parent to child, even as he created a kaleidoscopic portrait of this country from its nervous entry into the 20th century to its stumbling approach to the millennium." [2]

Part I

The first section, set mainly in Paterson, New Jersey, is centered on Clarence Wilmot, a minister in his forties who abruptly loses his faith one very hot afternoon shortly before a dinner party. His loss of faith is presented as coinciding with the fainting spell of the 17-year-old silent film actress Mary Pickford, who is at local landmark Lambert Castle making a film with D. W. Griffith. His decision to leave the ministry has serious social and financial consequences for his wife and three children, 16-year-old Jared, 14-year-old Esther and 10-year-old Ted. Unable to find work suitable for a man of his education, Clarence is reduced to selling encyclopedias door to door, a job he performs poorly. Growing more and more depressed and withdrawn, he finds solace only in the nickelodeon cinemas of the time and dies prematurely.

Part II

The remainder of Clarence's family moves to the small town of Basingstoke, Delaware to live with Clarence's sister Esther. This next section which covers the 1920s, focuses on Clarence's youngest son Ted. A quiet child, he grows up to be a diffident adult, much like his father. He gradually becomes involved with an equally shy young woman called Emily with a stunted and deformed foot whose family is socially looked down on, possibly because it is rumored her mother is part black. On their first date they see the Greta Garbo feature Flesh and the Devil . (The film stars of the 1920s are frequently mentioned, but unlike his father, Ted takes little pleasure in movies, finding them exhausting and intrusive). His mother and Aunt Esther (Clarence's sister), disappointed with Ted's choice of Emily as a girlfriend and his general lack of ambition, sends him to stay with his older brother Jared in New York City. Jared has married the daughter of a bootlegger and is involved in shady schemes himself. Ted is uncomfortable with the job Jared finds for him as a rent collector in immigrant neighborhoods and feels out of place at the speakeasies Jared and his friends frequent. He decides to return home and marry Emily; his mother and aunt resign themselves to Ted's choice of a bride and find him a job as a postman which he works at contentedly for decades. His marriage to Emily proves emotionally and sexually fulfilling, and by the end of the second section they are the parents of a baby daughter named Esther.

Part III

In the following section, Esther (nicknamed Essie) becomes the main protagonist. A beautiful and confident, if somewhat arrogant, little girl, she decides at a young age that she wants to be a movie star. She gets her first real break at eighteen when she agrees to a photo shoot with a photographer who noticed her at a beauty contest. He asks to photograph her topless and after hesitating, she agrees. Later she moves to New York City to stay with her wealthy cousin Patrick who has offered to further her career. Assuming that Patrick is expecting sexual favors from her, she tries to seduce him, but Patrick rebuffs her and later tells her he is a homosexual. Esther finds work modeling and gradually begins appearing in films, typically as a spunky girl next door similar to Judy Garland. Renamed Alma DeMott, she gradually becomes a minor celebrity. A number of actual Hollywood personalities from this time are featured, including Gary Cooper and Clark Gable who are two of her first co-stars. She has a brief affair with Gable, and Cooper gives her fatherly advice about acting. Harry Cohn also makes an appearance. At age 29, just when she is fearing her career is starting to decline, Alma becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son she names Clark, in honor of Clark Gable who is recently deceased. She makes a successful comeback in a series of musicals, but her son grows up neglected.

Part IV

The final section focuses on Clark and jumps ahead to the late 1980s when he is an aimless young man halfheartedly working as a ski lift operator for his great uncle Jared in Colorado. The evening after an altercation with another employee, he meets a young woman called Hannah who invites him home with her. It turns out she lives in a religious commune, similar to that of the Branch Davidians. Clark agrees to stay on, partially out of aimlessness and attraction to Hannah, but also because the group's puritanical stance on modern American pop culture, particularly movies, appeals to him (reversing the stance of his great grandfather who abandoned religion and embraced the newly born film industry). The group consists of several young adults and their children, led by the charismatic but controlling Jesse. Turning more and more away from modern American life, the group grows increasingly paranoid and isolated, refusing to send its children to school and shooting at a school bus driver. This eventually leads to a siege similar to that at Waco. Jesse orders Clark and the other adult male followers to shoot all the women and children; Clark however rebels and shoots Jesse instead. This action ends up saving most of the women and children, although Clark is shot and killed himself soon afterward. A number of Clark's relatives, including Ted (now a widower in his nineties) view the siege on the television news. Despite their shock and grief they are proud that the young man most of them had dismissed years ago as a loser has saved so many lives.


Writing in The New York Times , Michiko Kakutani called the novel “dazzling”. An attempt “to chart the fortunes of an American family through four generations and some 80 years, and in doing so, create a portrait of the country, from its nervous entry into the 20th century to its stumbling approach to the millennium,” writes Kakutani in her assessment. “‘In the Beauty of the Lilies’ is not only Mr. Updike's most ambitious novel to date, but arguably his finest: a big, generous book, narrated with Godlike omniscience and authority and populated by a wonderfully vivid cast of dreamers, wimps, social climbers, crackpots and lost souls, a book that forces us to reassess the American Dream and the crucial role that faith (and the longing for faith) has played in shaping the national soul.” [3]

Critic James Wood called it a "complacent historical saga". [4] Writer and critic Joseph Bottum wrote in Commentary, "The story is perhaps a little sketchy, as though the book were an abstract for a novel rather than the finished thing, but it is a thoughtful and serious book, in places funny and in places sad, by a thoughtful and serious man, the prose master of his generation". [5]

In The New Yorker , critic George Steiner called the novel “awesome,” concluding, “Updike’s genius, his place beside Hawthorne and Nabokov have never been more assured.” [6]

In 2015, Publishers Weekly ranked the novel among its “Ten Best John Updike Books”. [7]


The novel received the 1997 Ambassador Book Award for Fiction, presented by the English-Speaking Union.

Related Research Articles

John Updike American novelist, poet, short story writer, art critic, and literary critic

John Hoyer Updike was an American novelist, poet, short-story writer, art critic, and literary critic. One of only four writers to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once, Updike published more than twenty novels, more than a dozen short-story collections, as well as poetry, art and literary criticism and children's books during his career.

<i>The Accidental Tourist</i>

The Accidental Tourist is a 1985 novel by Anne Tyler that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1985 and the Ambassador Book Award for Fiction in 1986. The novel was adapted into a 1988 award-winning film starring William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, and Geena Davis, for which Davis won an Academy Award.

<i>The Bell Jar</i> 1963 novel by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar is the only novel written by the American writer and poet Sylvia Plath. Originally published under the pseudonym "Victoria Lucas" in 1963, the novel is semi-autobiographical with the names of places and people changed. The book is often regarded as a roman à clef because the protagonist's descent into mental illness parallels Plath's own experiences with what may have been clinical depression or bipolar II disorder. Plath died by suicide a month after its first United Kingdom publication. The novel was published under Plath's name for the first time in 1967 and was not published in the United States until 1971, in accordance with the wishes of both Plath's husband, Ted Hughes, and her mother. The novel has been translated into nearly a dozen languages.

Anne Tyler is an American novelist, short story writer, and literary critic. She has published twenty-three novels, including Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), The Accidental Tourist (1985), and Breathing Lessons (1988). All three were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and Breathing Lessons won the prize in 1989. She has also won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, the Ambassador Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2012 she was awarded The Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence. Tyler's twentieth novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2015, and Redhead By the Side of the Road was longlisted for the same award in 2020. She is recognized for her fully developed characters, her "brilliantly imagined and absolutely accurate detail," her "rigorous and artful style", and her "astute and open language."

<i>The Ghost Writer</i> 1979 novel by Philip Roth

The Ghost Writer is a 1979 novel by the American author Philip Roth. It is the first of Roth's novels narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, one of the author's putative fictional alter egos, and constitutes the first book in his Zuckerman Bound trilogy. The novel touches on themes common to many Roth works, including identity, the responsibilities of authors to their subjects, and the condition of Jews in America. Parts of the novel are a reprise of The Diary of Anne Frank.

<i>Amsterdam</i> (novel)

Amsterdam is a 1998 novel by British writer Ian McEwan, for which he was awarded the 1998 Booker Prize.

<i>Independence Day</i> (Ford novel)

Independence Day is a 1995 novel by Richard Ford and the sequel to Ford's 1986 novel The Sportswriter. This novel is the second in what is now a four-part series, the first being The Sportswriter. It was followed by The Lay of the Land (2006) and Let Me Be Frank With You (2014). Independence Day won the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1996, becoming the first novel ever to win both awards in a single year.

<i>The Secret History</i> Book by Donna Tartt

The Secret History is the first novel by the American author Donna Tartt, published by Alfred A. Knopf in September 1992. Set in New England, the novel tells the story of a closely knit group of six classics students at Hampden College, a small, elite liberal arts college located in Vermont based upon Bennington College, where Tartt was a student between 1982 and 1986.

<i>Cosmopolis</i> (novel)

Cosmopolis is Don DeLillo's thirteenth novel. It was published by Scribner on April 14, 2003.

Michiko Kakutani American literary critic and writer

Michiko Kakutani is an American literary critic and former chief book critic for The New York Times. Her awards include a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

Yoshiko Uchida was an award-winning Japanese American writer.

Jane Mendelsohn is an American writer. Her novels are known for their mythic themes, poetic imagery, and allegorical content, as well as themes of female and personal empowerment. Mendelsohn's novel I Was Amelia Earhart was an international bestseller in 1996 and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

<i>Rogers Version</i>

Roger's Version is a 1986 novel by American writer John Updike.

<i>American Rust</i>

American Rust is American writer Philipp Meyer's debut novel, published in 2009. Set in the 2000s, American Rust takes place in the fictional town of Buell in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, which is in a rural region referred to as "the Valley" of dilapidated steel towns. American Rust focuses on the decline of the American middle class, good-paying manufacturing jobs, and the general sense of economic and social malaise of what has become known as the New Gilded Age. Meyer's novel received rave reviews from book critics; many publications ranked it one of the best novels of 2009.

Nora Okja Keller is a Korean American author. Her 1997 breakthrough work of fiction, Comfort Woman, and her second book (2002), Fox Girl, focus on multigenerational trauma resulting from Korean women's experiences as sex slaves, euphemistically called comfort women, for Japanese and American troops during World War II.

<i>The Age of Miracles</i>

The Age of Miracles is the debut novel by the American writer Karen Thompson Walker. It was published in June 2012 by Random House in the United States and Simon & Schuster in the United Kingdom. The book chronicles the fictional phenomenon of "slowing", in which one Earth day begins to stretch out and takes longer and longer to complete. The novel received positive reviews and publishing deals totaling £1.12 million, and has been translated into a number of languages. The book was nominated as part of the Waterstones 11 literary award in 2012.

Open City is a 2011 novel by Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole. The novel is primarily set in New York City, and concerns a Nigerian immigrant, Julius, who has recently broken up with his girlfriend. The novel received praise for its prose and depiction of New York.

Omar El Akkad is an Egyptian-Canadian novelist and journalist.

<i>Seek My Face</i>

Seek My Face is a 2002 book by John Updike.

<i>The Subtle Body</i>

The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America is a 2010 book on the history of yoga as exercise by the American journalist Stefanie Syman. It spans the period from the first precursors of American yoga, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau, the arrival of Vivekananda, the role of Hollywood with Indra Devi, the hippie generation, and the leaders of a revived but now postural yoga such as Bikram Choudhury and Pattabhi Jois.


  1. Kakutani, Michiko (12 January 1996). "Seeking Salvation on the Silver Screen". New York Times. Retrieved 20 December 2020.
  2. Kakutani, Michiko (27 January 2009). "An Appraisal – John Updike, Intuitive and Precise, Mapped America's Mysteries". New York Times . Retrieved 13 May 2011.
  3. Kakutani, Michiko (12 January 1996). "Seeking Salvation on the Silver Screen". New York Times. Retrieved 18 December 2020.
  4. Woods, James (19 April 2001). "Gossip in Gilt". London Review of Books. 23 (8). Retrieved 9 April 2020.
  5. Bottum, Joseph (1 April 1996). "In the Beauty of the Lilies (Book Review)". Commentary. 101 (4): 64. Retrieved 9 April 2020.
  6. Steiner, George (11 March 1996). "Supreme Fiction: America is in the details". The New Yorker. Retrieved 20 December 2020.
  7. Carduff, Christopher (23 October 2015). "The Ten Best John Updike Books". Publishers Weekly. Retrieved 20 December 2020.