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"S" [Paperback]

John Updike
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

30 Mar 1989
This novel by John Updike tells the story of Sarah Worth - "S" - who joins the Ashram Arhat. Famous for his transcendent wisdom and divine immobility, the Arhat has transferred his Ashram from India to Arizona, where he and his entourage are attempting to make the desert fruitful.

Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; New edition edition (30 Mar 1989)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140121331
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140121339
  • Product Dimensions: 19 x 12.7 x 1.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,599,821 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

About the Author

John Updike was born in 1932 in Shillington, Pennsylvania. John Updike's first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, was published in 1959. It was followed by Rabbit, Run, 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 and Toward the End of Time. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Misogyny or Misandry? 10 Feb 2011
It's a Modern Scarlett Letter

Having read almost all Updike's novels and short stories, I picked up this book with no expectations. For years I wondered why Updike had such a terrible reputation among feminists - I couldn't understand their ire from what I had read. In the middle 1980's, Updike picked up on the misandric attacks on men from radical feminists and used it to drive The Witches of Eastwick, Roger's Version and this minor masterpiece, S.

S. is Sarah, a 40 something descendant of Hester Prynne, who one day just picks up and leaves her surgeon husband, her daughter Pearl and great material comfort for an ashram in the Arizona desert. The tale is revealed through letters and cassette tapes, all from Sarah's point of view. Her 'spiritual' journey is revealed - a fantastic sham, as it turns out. Her confused outlook and willfully greedy behaviour makes for great ridicule in Updike's eyes. He strips off her hypocrisy and selfishness bit by bit, until the very last page of the book.

I found it compelling reading, dangerous at the time of writing and still terribly relevant. The extent to which anti-male views exist today in the culture is fantastic, and this counter-blast, couched in comedy and irony, is very welcome reading. I can see why feminists hate Updike now, once and for all, and it makes me like him all the more.

The writing is terrific all the way through, and the story is funny, sad and revealing. Only the form prevents me from rewarding it 5 stars - the letter writing is a convention, and a little painful. But as a radical re-write of The Scarlet Letter, it is a blast.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Genius. 23 Feb 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This man is a genius. I am slowly working my way through all his books. I've read all the Rabbit ones - if you've not read those I'd start there. Enjoy.
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Amazon.com: 3.7 out of 5 stars  19 reviews
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Funniest Updike 15 Aug 2003
By D. P. Birkett - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Mass Market Paperback
Updike has this amazing ability to turn his hand to anything. There is no distinct Updike style you could ever parody. He just writes amazingly well. He can put himself inside the skin of anyone of of any ethnicity or sex. His tone rends to be satirical but he can be profound. This is one of his most undiluted attempts at out and out comedy.
It is written from the point of view of a very WASP New England lady (one of her ancestors is a Prynne, and her daughter is called Pearl) who deserts her adulterous doctor husband to join a Hindu or Buddhist (I was never quite sure which) commune in Arizona.It's written in the form of the letters and tapes she sends to correspodents back East (her dentist, hairdresser, husband, psychotherapist, daughter,best friend, lawyer, hairdresser's jailed son etc).
She starts off as a naive dupe, but by the end has oth cleverly outsmarted everyone who tried to rip her off and achieved the spiritual development she sought from the fraudulent guru.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Letters Home 30 Nov 2000
By Tom Adair - Published on Amazon.com
Ever since Rabbit, Run, Updike has been attracted to the idea of writing a story that feels as if it is actually happening while it is being read - rather than, as is almost inherent in the form of the novel, communicating an impression of recorded history. By way of attempting to put the idea into practice, Updike has both experimented with present-tense narration (see Leaf Season in Trust Me) and - in S. - given us his take on the venerable (if not antiquated) genre of the epistolary novel. From this point of view the fact that S. is made up solely of letters is an attractive feature of the book: one's sense of anticipation (how will events unfold?) is indeed sharpened. What makes the epistolary form work in this novel is the naturally loquacious and confiding disposition of the protagonist and author of the letters, Sarah Worth (or 'S' as she signs herself to her husband).
Sarah has in fact left her husband and gone to join a religious commune in Arizona. Through her dispatches to various friends, family and acquaintances we follow the fortunes of the community and her role within it through to its surprising (?) conclusion.
The novel has been criticised for its satirical presentation of Buddhism, yoga, etc. in the context of commune life. I'm not sure Updike would accept the charge. In fact I found quite a lot of fair-mindedness in the book - it actually left me with an improved rather than diminished opinion of what Eastern ideas are actually aspiring to - although I don't think Updike can excuse himself from drawing on certain stereotypes. But this is essentially a light, comic novel - although I don't see why it necessarily had to be - and probably shouldn't be taken too seriously.
What I missed most was Updike's typically well-observed dialogue, which in this case is mostly paraphrased in retrospect by the narrator. I had a similar problem with A Month of Sundays, in some ways this book's companion volume. Updike may also have found himself missing this type of writing since half-way through he suspends the strict rules of the epistolary genre and has Sarah include a cassette recording of some tapped conversation in with one of her dispatches. This moment was a welcome relief from her up-till-then uninterrupted monologues, but its breaking the rules of the genre made me wonder about the point of the form in the first place.
Overall he's done it very well, of course, as he does almost everything very well, but I doubt he'll revisit the experiment.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fun, Well-Written, But Spiteful 21 Mar 2000
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
I was very impressed by Updike's ability to create characters that are wholly believable, and to craft a story that is hard to put down -- I read this in a couple of days, and enjoyed it. The protagonist, Sarah, sounds very much like any number of people I've met, down to the fine details -- a difficult stunt to sustain over the length of a novel that is essentially her dictation. And, to be sure, the book is funny, as many have claimed. It is also rather mean spirited, however.

Sarah leaves her husband for a "spiritual" commune or ashram, which Updike modeled on the one established in the 70's by Bhagavan Shri Rajneesh in Oregon. Having lived in a community that bears much similarity to the one portrayed, I can vouche for the accuracy (greatly exaggerated, of course) of the likeness. But although my own experience was no less disappointing than Sarah's, I would have liked to have thought that a writer of Updike's ability and insight would not stoop to getting the usual belly laughs at the expense of all those who have tried to find spiritual growth through Eastern traditions. He seems to have steeped himself deeply in the language and philosophy of Buddhism and Hinduism, but only to lampoon those who are drawn to them. His portrayal is clever, and certainly captures the worst aspects of such endeavors, but it veers towards the most cynical view imaginable -- that those who pursue such traditions and lifestyles are viciously greedy, self-indulgent frauds, and those who steer clear of them to pursue the stock market or whatever are far wiser souls. If you want to wallow in that perspective, this book's for you.

Updike's portrayal of Sarah herself is similarly tainted. She is ultimately revealed as selfish, petty, and grotesquely hypocritical, using her "feminism" as a means to express all her worst qualities. Of course, there's no reason not to have such a character in a novel, but I got the impression that this was Updike's view, if not of all women, than at least of women of a privileged background, or women who leave their husbands but aren't willing to impoverish themselves in the process, or who look for salvation in offbeat ways. (And I'm not any of the above.)

In short, S. is a cheap shot at feminism and all things "new age," but an entertaining one.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Updike on religious humor and the female condition 24 Dec 2002
By erica - Published on Amazon.com
S. is the story of Sarah Worth, a New England matron who flees the confines of midcentury feminine affluence to seek spiritual (and sexual) enlightenment in a religious commune. She chronicles her adventure in letters to her best friend, daughter, and estranged husband, as well as short notes to her former dentist and hairdresser, tapes of conversations with the commune's leader, and a selection of the letters she writes on behalf of the commune's business office. The story unfolds briskly and subtely, with Updike employing his satirical skill to show a woman who, in leaving her life behind, manages to take it all with her.
A benefit of the letter format is that it allows a full exploration of the narrator's voice, to excellent effect. It also suppresses Updike's tendency to rely too heavily on his (excellent) descriptive language and instroduces an element of suspense that makes the story quite absorbing.
S. has been criticized by other reviewers for its perceived mockery of Eastern religions, but I don't think this is intended. Updike has obviously done extensive research - if not into Eastern religions themselves, then at least into their Western offshoots - and presents the characters with what, for him, is considerable sympathy. Of course he mocks the narrator's blind devotion to the commune - that's part of what the book is about - but he's mocking the misdirection of her efforts, not the ideals to which she aspires.
The one element of the book that frustrated me was Updike's treatment of his narrator. Sure, it's fun to read a book about an arrogant and slightly hysterical woman who is always just slightly out of her league - a Bridget Jones for our mothers' generation. But it would perhaps be more interesting to watch a character really grow through the course of the novel and transcend, or at least recognize, her own bias. Of course that kind of revelatory change would be anathema to Updike, whose thesis - popping up, appropriately, in book after book - seems to be that life is a cycle, endlessly revolving, lush with beauty and without escape. And this book is - first and foremost, like all his books - Updike.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable Updike 18 Sep 2004
By scott89119 - Published on Amazon.com
"S." is the story of a lonely woman named Sarah Worth, trapped in a thankless marriage who one day escapes to an Arizona ashram while not knowing which part of her life to live. Her confusion and angst leads her into a sordid relationship with the village's Arnat (leader), duplicity with the organization's questionable fund-raising, and difficult friendships with her peers in the ashram. I found this to be a very interesting look at the desire of one woman to shed her old skin and begin anew, although at the same time not knowing exactly how to do so. Sarah is sort of a metaphor for trapped women everywhere; confused and comedic, she leaves her old self with reluctance, all the while questioning her decisions. The outcome is accurate to her character, while still mysterious enough so the reader isn't sure if her whole journey was worth it in the first place. The book overall is light reading, but great fluff entertainment nonetheless. Updike is at his comedic best here, while still covering everything in the beautiful, pesudo-technical language that has become his trademark. If you would like to learn more spiritual terminology while getting to know a loveably neurotic character I recommend this book, but not if you want something to really make you think.
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