Of the Farm by John Updike should be read along with Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth. They both portray toxic mothers but from archly different perspectives. And they are almost contemporaneous works from the mid-1960s. Unlike Portnoy's Complaint no hint of humor lightens Updike's novel, nor is the mood anything but tense, strained, and difficult--just like much of life. But a little humor to help keep one's perspective wouldn't hurt, would it?
I would call Of the Farm "minimalist fiction." It is short and there is no action to speak of; no plot except what swirls underground as it were, no violence, no sex, nothing to keep the readers attention except the intricate portrayal of human relationships in the family, in this case a "blended" one--and, of course, Updike's fine writing, which at times gets a bit overdone with excessive and flowery metaphors that are only distracting and draw attention to the author rather than illuminating the characters or story. "See how clever I am and how fine I can turn a phrase. Bet you can't write this good. (I mean "well." Sorry.)"
Updike explores many issues of 1960s America in a compressed way--such issues as divorce with children, remarriage with children, aging, encroaching suburbanization, the slow disappearance of rural life in the Northeast, urban v. rural life. Of course, central to all are the relations between mother and son. Heck, these issues are still very much in the air today.
Of the Farm is full of nostalgia for something slipping away and maybe lost. There is also a wonderful mini-portrait/characterization of a precocious eleven year old boy. I think that was my favorite aspect of the novel.
The editorial review praise for Of the Farm seems quite overblown to me. If they say that stuff about Of the Farm, what would they say about a really good novel? Is this some sort of "praise inflation"?