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Couples (Penguin Modern Classics) [Paperback]

John Updike
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
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Book Description

22 Feb 2007 Penguin Modern Classics
An intoxicating yet sensitive novel about the sexual experiences of ten couples from Tarbox, New England. Well-to-do, sociable, articulate but dangerously unfulfilled; they play word games in the evening and adultery all year round.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics (22 Feb 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141188987
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141188980
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 261,236 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

John Updike was born in 1932 in Shillington, Pennsylvania. He attended Shillington High School, Harvard College and the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford, where he spent a year on a Knox Fellowship. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of the New Yorker, to which he contributed numerous poems, short stories, essays and book reviews. After 1957 he lived in Massachusetts until his death.

John Updike's first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, was published in 1959. It was followed by Rabbit, Run, the first volume of what have become known as the Rabbit books, which John Banville described as 'one of the finest literary achievements to have come out of the US since the war'. Rabbit is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990) were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Other novels by John Updike include Marry Me, The Witches of Eastwick, which was made into a major feature film, Memories of the Ford Administration, Brazil, In the Beauty of the Lilies, Toward the End of Time and Villages. He has written a number of volumes of short stories, and a selection entitled Forty Stories, taken from The Same Door, Pigeon Feathers, The Music School and Museums and Women, is published in Penguin, as is the highly acclaimed The Afterlife and Other Stories. His criticism and his essays, which first appeared in magazines such as The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, have been collected in five volumes. Golf Dreams, a collection of his writings on golf, has also been published. His Collected Poems 1953-1993 brings together almost all the poems from five previous volumes, including 'Hoping for a Hoopoe', 'Telephone Poles' and 'Tossing and Turning', as well as seventy poems previously unpublished in book form. The last books of his to be published by Hamish Hamilton were My Father's Tears and Other Stories, and Endpoint and Other Poems. He died in January 2009.

Product Description


"I can think of no other novel, even in these years of our sexual freedom, as sexually explicit in its direct in its sexual reporting, as abundant in its sexual activities." -- The Atlantic Monthly "Trapped in their cozy catacombs, the couples have made sex by turns their toy, their glue, their trauma, their therapy, their hope, their frustration, their revenge, their narcotics, their main line of communication and their sole and pitiable shield against the awareness of death. Adultery, says Updike, has become a kind of 'imaginative quest' for successful hedonism that would enable man to enjoy an otherwise meaningless life....The couples of Tarbox live in a place and time that together seem to have been ordained for this quest." -- Time

About the Author

Born in Pennsylvania, John Updike has lived in Massachusetts since 1957 as a freelance writer.

A highly successful novelist and poet, he has received the Pulitzer prize for two of his novels in the Rabbit series, Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars welcome to the post-pill paradise 9 Aug 2008
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The novel is set in a promiscuous, heavy drinking and well-off circle of young married friends in the fictional sea-side Boston suburb of Tarbox. The novel takes place in 1963 around the time of the assassination of JFK.

'Welcome to the post-pill paradise....'

These intentionally ironical words occur many times in Couples and give a clue to the central theme of the book. How do these young, mostly highly educated and well-to-do thirty something couples, deal with the opportunities that a new world of risk-free contraception and a more open attitude to sex offer for the first time, here in 1960's America. They have wealth, time, opportunity and the desire to experiment. Do they, the novel asks, find themselves in paradise or a kind of hell in which all previous moral absolutes have gone ?

The 8 or 9 couples live close-knit lives, sharing holidays, parties, school runs and frequently, sexual partners. Their master of ceremonies, the odious dentist Freddie, encourages this sexual freedom in which he takes virtually no part. Piet Hanema, the central male character, is an inveterate womaniser and interestingly, the only non-academic in the group, he is a carpenter. He also remains friends with all his previous partners as he is attractive and undemanding. His transgressive relationship with the heavily pregnant Foxy Whitworth causes deep rifts and disquiet in the group. Hedonistic freedom comes, Updike makes it clear, with a heavy price and Piet and Foxy pay.

The writing is wonderful. Updike at his clear, passionate and insightful best leads us deep into the lives of his characters through his way of writing from the inside out. We feel, see and experience life as lived by those characters in that time and place.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not his best 13 Oct 2008
By Sizebel
I've given this 4 stars which is a bit harsh and I should explain that I'm comparing it with Updike's other works which are mostly 6 out of 5. But Updike at cruise-control is still fantastic compared to most other authors at full throttle. Couples reprises the familiar themes of adultery, sex addiction (before there was a condition for it) and marital boredom. However, the conversations of the characters seemed unbelievable: all you could hear was Updike talking, or one of his alter egos. Some of the other characters, especially the women, just wouldn't talk like that. Unlike other Updike novels, this one took me a while to finish because I couldn't take that much of it in one sitting. If you've never experienced Updike, you'll still be pretty impressed at his writing. But I recommend you start with the Rabbit trilogy to get pure literary pleasure from this genius.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A glimpse of a bygone age? 6 Oct 2012
I read somewhere that Updike modelled the fictitious town of Tarbox on Ipswich. Well, I can't see any similarities in the stunning scenery he describes for us, but perhaps I can in the adulterous, wife-swapping of the many characters who inhabit the novel! I assume the Americans were about 20 or 30 years ahead of the Brits in this regard.

To the novel itself, and I have read a lot of the other reviews on this and other websites, many of which make very good points.

Yes, there is a collision at times between the flowing action/dialogue on one hand and the long passages of descriptive narrative about the construction of a building, or the interior of someone's house, etc. on the other. The effect of these occasional 'interruptions' to the story can be jarring to the reader, but there is no doubting Updike's marvellous gift for language. His idiosyncratic syntax meant at times that I had to re-read a sentence to understand it properly, which slowed down the reading experience, but I think at the end it was worth taking the time to ensure that I had gathered in all he had to say.

Some reviewers have commented upon the abundance of characters, and indeed with around 20 players all vying for the reader's attention, it did get a little crowded at times. What I found most remarkable about the characters, though, is how few of them the reader was actually invited to like! The central male lead, Piet Hanema, is a cowardly, shallow womaniser, and although we are allowed to sympathise with how he was orphaned and how this may have affected him, we are most of the time left wondering what on earth all these women actually see in him!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A novel of its time 29 Nov 2011
Set in the early sixties, Couples is about a promiscuous circle of ten couples in the small Massachusetts town of Tarbox. For well over 500 pages the reader follows the couples as they holiday and party together while at the same time they discreetly (mostly) sleep with each others partners.

In a voyeuristic way I enjoyed it and was entertained by it. Aside from a few places where Updike suddenly gives long flowery descriptions, the prose is relatively easy to read and there is a wonderful sense of place. The small town, the houses and the time period are well described, as is the kind of social standing that the couples belong to.

The characters are pretty vile all round as are the attitudes the male characters have towards the female ones. All the female characters are home-makers and are only seen as such. Aside from one exception, none of them have jobs and nor are they expected to have one. They spend most of their time doing chores, hosting parties and having affairs out of either sheer boredom or because they feel they ought to. They are at the age where they are still part of the `50s housewife' life but at the same time they are also young enough to participate in the sexual revolution of the 60s within the confines of their marriages.

While there is a lot to think about and enjoy, it has its faults. The novel is too long and ten couples is perhaps too many, one lady in my book group had to write down a list of all the characters along with all their affairs as it got so confusing.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Enjoyable, though seemed a little dated. Updike's immaculate prose fills me with admiration, although some of vocabulary is obscure.
Published 11 days ago by Chris Luck
5.0 out of 5 stars Acquired taste
Typical Updike observations. An acquired taste but I love his work.
Published 1 month ago by Bibliophile
2.0 out of 5 stars You will need an English degree to read this and make any sense of it.
I did not manage to read much of this book as I found the storyline too difficult to follow. I have now deleted it.
Published 2 months ago by pamela slackman
1.0 out of 5 stars Difficult to read
Didn't like it very much.
Published 2 months ago by Shirley Betteridge
3.0 out of 5 stars somewhat dated and not that compelling
John Updike stands as one of the doyenne of writers of the last fifty years and his reputation is big. Read more
Published 17 months ago by Mr. Robert Marsland
3.0 out of 5 stars Sixties Somethings
The early nineteen sixties beckoned on a decade of change. Not only did the world shake off most of the remnants of its most recent global war, not only did Europe's defeated... Read more
Published 20 months ago by Philip Spires
4.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful to see it again
I was inspired to read this again after 20 + years due to it's mention in "The Marriage Plot". Fantastic writing and a fabulous product of it's time. Read more
Published on 18 May 2012 by Charmian
3.0 out of 5 stars I Wish I Had Read It When It Was Released
I have always wanted to read Updike he has been one of those authors you have on your own personal hit list so I was rather looking forward to `Couples'. Read more
Published on 3 Aug 2010 by Simon Savidge Reads
4.0 out of 5 stars Dispatches from the front line of the sexual revolution
An earlier reviewer said that he found it difficult to imagine a less appealing subject than adultery, but in fact there have been a good many authors who have found it a highly... Read more
Published on 20 Nov 2009 by J C E Hitchcock
2.0 out of 5 stars Uncoupled
I've never been a John Updike fan & one should'nt speak ill of a recent dead,but the huge tributes made me feel I had missed out. Read more
Published on 5 Mar 2009 by Mr. K. D. Perry
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