Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 464 pages; 2007.
I had not expected to like John Updike’s 1968 novel, Couples, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it one of the most intense reading experiences I’ve enjoyed in a long while.
I stupidly thought I wouldn’t like it because I’d formulated the completely wrong impression about Updike as a writer. Without having read him before, I had pigeon-holed him as one of those white male authors (think Philip Roth, John Irving, Norman Mailer et al) of a particular priviledged background that penned misogynist novels with self-indulgent, navel-gazing tendencies. I should have known that that misguided view might come back and bite me one day.
Couples is an amazingly voyeuristic look at small-town life in New England in 1962/63. It’s the era of Betty Friedan’s ground-breaking Feminine Mystique (which, by the way, I have been reading slowly, off and on, for the past five months), the African-American civil rights movement, the Cold War and President Kennedy. But it’s the sexual liberation provided by the contraceptive pill which really gives this book its central focus.
Here, in the small town of Tarbox, we have 10 couples fending off boredom by discreetly and not-so discreetly swapping partners. Whether it be at dinner parties, ski-trips or during working hours, this exclusive set of thoroughly detestable characters are in and out of each other’s beds on a constant basis. These are the people that put the swing into the swinging sixties, if you get my meaning.
But despite all the numerous bed-hopping and lust-filled shenanigans, it is the affair between the red-haired Dutch-immigrant builder, Piet Hanemas, and the blonde mother-to-be, Foxy Whitman, that is the lynch-pin of the story. Throwing caution to the wind, the pair’s antics lead to terrible repercussions that have long-lasting impacts on the people around them…
Despite the somewhat seedy subject matter, this is a thoroughly entertaining romp at a time when social mores where being challenged on every level. It’s no coincidence that the people of Tarbox live in the shadow of a Congregational Church and that each character in the novel has an opinion about religion, whether Catholic, Jewish, protestant or atheist. Interestingly, the most religious of characters, Piet, who attends church regularly, is also the most promiscuous, while his wife, the non-believer, is the most prudish.
What I liked about this novel was not so much the insights into a particular set of Baby Boomers grappling with the banality of domestic life, but the ways in which Updike scatters snippets of historical detail — the sinking of the USS Thresher, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy’s assassination — throughout. More than once I was reminded of the current TV series Mad Men, if not in physical setting then at least in tone and time period.
And having expected Updike to be sexist and misogynist, I was surprised to find his female characters all believable and well-drawn. That most of them felt empty and lacking purpose to their lives certainly rings true with Betty Friedan’s theory about women being disaffected by domesticity at the time.
All in all, Couples was a wonderful read, helped in part by consuming the entire book in the space of 36 hours in order to have it read in time for my book group! I wouldn’t recommend doing it that way, because this is a rich, wordy read that needs time to properly digest, but it worked for me and made it all the more intense.