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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars welcome to the post-pill paradise
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...
Published on 9 Aug. 2008 by Nina-Jo Rees

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Meh
Updike, I would say, wrote beautifully about horrible people. And, boy, are they all horrible people in 'Couples'. Of course this novel, considered a masterpiece at the time, won't be so shocking today as it was in 1968. Interestingly, however, it's not as outdated as one might expect; rather, it is still relevant to the thinking reader today - because, squidgy,...
Published 7 months ago by u.R.what.u.read


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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars welcome to the post-pill paradise, 9 Aug. 2008
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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.

Describing his subject as "the American small town, Protestant middle class," Updike has become most famous as a "chronicler of suburban adultery". A subject which, he once wrote, "if I have not exhausted, has exhausted me." There is no sign of exhaustion in this early novel though, He writes honestly, with fire in his belly and out of anger, deep disgust as well as a desire to explain and to understand.
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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
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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
3.0 out of 5 stars Meh, 21 Sept. 2014
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This review is from: Couples (Hardcover)
Updike, I would say, wrote beautifully about horrible people. And, boy, are they all horrible people in 'Couples'. Of course this novel, considered a masterpiece at the time, won't be so shocking today as it was in 1968. Interestingly, however, it's not as outdated as one might expect; rather, it is still relevant to the thinking reader today - because, squidgy, pubic-hairy & smelly bits aside (good luck with ignoring those, though!), 'Couples' poses some interesting big questions.

The many, utterly unpleasant, shallow characters, are almost all young, healthy, rich (or thereabouts), happily married people with good-to-excellent lives and a litter of beautiful, healthy children to boot. Yet, they're all so restless and unsatisfied with their lot, that they incessantly copulate with everybody else's spouse, like randy mice in a Viagra test lab. The big question, for me, was: Why? And, come on, with one exception, all of them are at it - really??? Updike suggests no answers, so we might as well say it was something in the water. This would be fine; perfect, in fact, since I want a book to make me think, not feed me pre-digested ideas. But the novel fails spectacularly where no self-respecting novel should: in giving believable, cogent explanations as to what might motivate these people to behave so ludicrously.

The "welcome to the post-pill paradise" mantra 'Couples' keeps repeating is just not good enough - I doubt that every single woman in the sixties started cheating on her husband as soon as, and because, the pill became available. Another unanswered question was, for me, the god-awful parenting: why do all these people care so little about their own children? I can't believe everybody was such a callous parent in the sixties. Not to mention the casual treatment of the fact that the main character's encounters with his daughters have, every single one of them, disturbing paedophile-like undertones which Updike creates but treats very casually indeed. Oh, and how come they have all been family friends for years, and suddenly they run amok and start falling into each-other's private parts?

Therefore, apart from the dubious literary sex-fest, which for me became boring and yucky after the first half a dozen of repetitive, unnecessarily explicit scenes, 'Couples' hasn't much to offer. As a love story (if Updike ever intended 'Couples' to be one) it fails on all levels. The long, lyrical passages (very similar to those in his later 'Mary Me') are just weird. The only good part was, for me, the twist: one character, ostensibly the most deprived, unpleasant and repulsive of them all, turns out to be in fact a thoroughly decent fellow - while the 'romantic hero' is eventually revealed a weak, nasty little twerp. Plenty of scope for discussion if you're in a reading group ... go on, I dare you :-)
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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
By 
R G Palmer (Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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! And I think this is Updike's point at the end of the day - he is satirising the wealthy middle-classes who we are led to believe engaged in these adulterous activities upon the discovery of the freedom allowed them by the birth control pill. (By way of emphasis, Foxy Whitman - arguably the most likeable of the characters and the central female in the story, still uses a more old fashioned type of contraception and is pregnant twice during the novel). As one other reviewer observed, these were couples living in the shadow of the mores of the 50's, who suddenly had the new freedoms of the 60's thrust upon them whilst they were still (just) young enough to enjoy them.

By the time of his writing the book, in 1968, five years after the fictional events he describes, we are given to understand that the 'post-pill' revolution has already dissolved into the free love of the acid generation. As one very astute reviewer states elsewhere, the difference between the early 60's and later generations was the removal of the taboo associated with sex before marriage: Updike's couples had to resort to adultery because that was the only option open to them when they were young if they wanted to experience different sexual partners.

The ending of the brief era is underscored by the fire toward the end of the novel - all that is left of the church is the weathercock, and I am not even going to try to analyse the significance of this - suffice to say that I understand that Updike was a devout Christian?

A very interesting and rewarding book - I don't think it's too long as some have claimed, and I think the lengthy interlude with the 'Applesmiths' which has been criticised elsewhere sets the tone and the scene rather than being superfluous.

Give it a read and enjoy the glimpse into life in a bygone age!
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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
By 
J. Willis (London) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
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. In parts the endless sleeping around became monotonous, the male characters comparing the body of their wives to that of their mistress might have been fine at first but after what seemed like the 6th or 7th time of reading about how saggy a characters wife's belly is compared to a mistress (or vis versa) it got boring.

Couples is a book that I enjoyed more than I thought I would, it was a mixed bag for me in many ways but I'm glad I read it. It's not a book I would recommend but I found it an interesting novel of its time, it could not have been written either ten years before or ten years after the time it was.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I Wish I Had Read It When It Was Released, 3 Aug. 2010
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'. I also liked the salacious sounding premise `Couples in love. Couples at play. Couples who talk, who cheat, who lie...' this book does exactly what it promises in the blurb as we meet ten (yes, ten) couples who live in Tarbox, New England during the Kennedy and post-pill era of the swinging sixties, emphasis on the swinging. These couples, who dine with each other, discuss politics and religion with each other and then sleep with each other behind each others back are really the soulless heart and soul of the book, or so I thought initially.

I call them soulless because they are all so vile, few of them have any redeeming features about them even when we do get to know some of their backgrounds, not because they aren't well drawn which they are. When I say some I sort of mean two of the couples actually as the story in the main focuses on the arrival of Elizabeth Whitman aka Foxy to Tarbox and an affair that follows with Piet Hanemas. It's therefore this duo, their predicament and their spouses, circumstances and backgrounds we get to know the rest of the couples seemed to fill two objectives a) give insights to how Foxy and Piet are perceived and b) take part in the endless drunken dinner parties where the couples try and one up each other and talk about the state of the nation to give Updike a chance to vent his thoughts. They could have not been there and the book could have been a good few hundred pages shorter were my initial thoughts after closing the last page.

Yet maybe as a reader in this decade I am missing something that others at the time got, very like I did with Amis and `Dead Babies', which is the shock factor. In this present day and age this book reads a little like a soap opera, back when it was published it was shocking, controversial and I am told quite scandalous - resulting in great sales the cynic in me thinks. So this meant I was missing something as a reader maybe. I can't fault Updike's writing though (apart from one scene in a bathroom which could have been incredible if toilet humour hadn't won the day - its not that I am a prude, it just ruined it), there's a powerful mix of frustration and anger in it that charges the whole thing. You can picture the characters perfectly, you understand them even when you might not want to or don't agree with them and I could visualise Tarbox perfectly. I didn't love this book and it's probably not the best place to start with Updike, if like me you haven't read him before, yet it has made me want to read more.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Be enthralled by the lives of 20 unpleasant people, 27 Aug. 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: Couples (Paperback)
It is difficult to imagine a less appealing subject than adultery, but within a dozen pages the reader is drawn into the closely intermeshed world of the Tarbox couples. This is a deeply insightful book, if on occasion over-descriptive, as though the writer has got bored by the unpleasant characters he has brought to life so vividly and has decided to spend the day writing lyrical descriptions of the town instead. Nonetheless, this book is unputdownable and will cause you to at least examine your own views on, and experiences of, marriage, adultery, adult friendship and social groupings. Read it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars This book will get under your skin, 12 Feb. 2009
By 
Ms. Hj Dowlen (Europe) - See all my reviews
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John Updike's Couples is an enjoyable and demanding read. I would liken the experience of reading this novel to watching a soap opera. The characters and their predicaments will take a foothold in your brain and you will find yourself saying their names and even imagining yourself in their places.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Sixties Somethings, 6 Feb. 2013
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 former colonial powers almost complete their American-dictated divestment of their assets, not only did capitalism institutionalise the shape of globalised future, but also, apparently, married people discovered sex. But not, for the purposes of Couples by John Updike, with their legal partners...

John Updike published Couples in 1968, so as the decade went, the novel was already something of a retrospective, a conscious revisiting of years of change. John F Kennedy was shot. Cuban missiles suffered their crises. There was probably the occasional sporting event. Wars turned cold. Vietnam was still just a country. Much of contemporary life, however, seemed to by-pass Tarbox, a New England residential area in the academic commuter belt. Methods of contraception in many ways dominated life in the chessboard of this community, where moves made in private produced their perhaps inevitable physical responses alongside personal and social consequences, both intended and not.

Couples looks at the lives of several Tarbox types. Each relationship has its own foibles. Each one has its man who is doing his best to be a man, and each has its woman who aspires to her own brand of perfection. Eventually the story focuses on one particular relationship, that of Piet and Foxy, pursued despite their mutual marital partners.

As ever with John Updike, the sex is both voluminous and throbbing. Each encounter seems to rediscover that thrill of first touch, the transport of discovery. But also guilt begins to build its walls of deception as the habit sets. There are consequences, not only for partners, but also for children and even community. And, in an age when conception can be avoided, both bio-chemically and mechanically, there can still be other consequences that can prove to be even more far-reaching, and provoke visits to the dentist.

The couples in Couples begin their communal voyage of discovery believing, perhaps like Columbus at the behest of Spanish monarchs, themselves a couple, that the world was about to begin anew, especially and just fort them. Also for them, as for Columbus, the journey was to prove a long one despite the fact that, certainly in twenty-first century terms, it does not go very far. For men and women conjoined, however, it's about as far as it ever gets, and further than many might venture. When a long way from the comforts of home, many of us might feel the touch of insecurity. And so it is for Tarbox people for whom, embarking upon their voyages of self-discovery outside their homely security, initial wonder at novelty soon engenders new doubt. Late on, John Updike notes that "We are all exiles who need to bathe in the irrational". We know it's not going to do us any good, but still we indulge. The compulsion is complete, perhaps inevitable, and thus the reminder that once through life is all we have is duly delivered, but much later, of course, that we really need to hear it. It has passed by before we have noticed.

Like all voyages of discovery, John Updike's Couples is a dated experience and a long one at that. But like all dated material, if it faithfully reflects and truly inhabits its own time, its journey is still worth the effort, its results permanently revelatory. The respectable normality that John Updike eventually imposes on his straying sheep reminds us that though new knowledge changes assumptions and new gadgets might render a different sheen onto the surface of life, we are still very much on the same voyage, whatever the age.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars, 11 Oct. 2014
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Enjoyable, though seemed a little dated. Updike's immaculate prose fills me with admiration, although some of vocabulary is obscure.
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Couples
Couples by John Updike (Paperback - 26 Jun. 1975)
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