Couples (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – 22 Feb 2007
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"I can think of no other novel, even in these years of our sexual freedom, as sexually explicit in its language...as 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
From the Inside Flap
Couples is the book that has been assailed for its complete frankness and praised as an artful, seductive, savagely graphic portrait of love, marriage, and adultery in America. But be it damned or hailed, Couples drew back the curtain forever on sex in suburbia in the late twentieth century. A classic, it is one of those books that will be read -- and remembered -- for a long time to come. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.See all Product description
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'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.
The (far too 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? Then, with only one exception, all of these characters are at it, so my next big questions was: Really, absolutely everybody behaves in the same way? 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 suddenly and dramatically change their behaviours.
The "welcome to the post-pill paradise" mantra Updike keeps repeating is just not good enough an explanation. These people had all been loyal to their spouses, and family friends with each other for years, and now suddenly they run amok and start falling into each-other's private parts. I found this simply not believable. I doubt that every single woman and man in the sixties started cheating on their spouse as soon as, and because, the pill became available. Another unanswered question was, for me, the god-awful parenting. Without exception, all the characters care very, very little about their own children, whereas in reality not absolutely everybody was a callous parent in the sixties, right? And the worst in the novel is still to come: the main character's encounters with his daughters have, every single one of them, disturbing paedophile undertones, which Updike creates but treats very casually indeed.
All in all, 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. It is unconvincing, unrealistic, and shallow, with an isolated attempt at social/political commentary which is just pathetic, a pretension of seriousness in a book otherwise only about sex. As a love story (if Updike ever intended 'Couples' to be one) it also fails on all levels. To add insult to injury, here and there we bump into long, lyrical passages (very similar to those in his later Marry Me ) which are just weird, and in no way fit the character supposedly thinking them, or within the novel as a whole.
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 to be 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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