‘Couples’ by John Updike

Couples

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.

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14 thoughts on “‘Couples’ by John Updike

  1. It’s funny Kim, I think I was the hardest on it and yet the more I think about it the more it grows in me. I definitely think I should have read it slower but like you I forgot book group was this week!

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  2. I have had a very old and battered copy of this on the TBR for ages and ages, and had very similar expectations about it, Kim, even though I read an Updike not so long ago and really admired it.
    Maybe now I should dust it off and give it a go…

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  3. I am thrilled and also relieved that we all enjoyed and were pleasantly surprised by this book. Immersing oneself in it over such a short period of time wasn’t the best way to read it but I worry that I would have set it aside early on if it had not been for book group. Now I find myself coveting more of John Updike’s novels and short stories, to luxuriate in the wordiness and rich period detail.

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  4. Just dont under-estimate its wordiness, Amy. It looks like a slim volume but my Penguin Modern Classics edition was printed on what Claire called bible paper – ie very thin paper. I thought it wouldnt take long to read. I was wrong!

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  5. I think totally immersing myself in it in a very short space of time to the exclusion of all else contributed to me really enjoying it. It became an incredibly intense reading experience of marathon proportions. I even dreamed about it. Im wondering if I shouldnt adopt this approach to more of my reading. I wonder if it would work with Ulysses? 😉

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  6. I read Couples when it originally appeared (ouch, is that ever hard to write), remember aspects of it (which is a tribute to the book, not my memory) and was reminded of even more by your review. Interestingly, in a comment just a week or so ago I described Couples as a book that had “fallen off the map”, as opposed to the Rabbit books. Wrong again, KfC — and what a great reminder this review was.
    I’ve read the four Rabbit books three times now (most recently just a couple years ago) and can recommend them. I am an odd duck with Updike, however, in that my favorites are the Bech volumes (Bech is to Updike as Zuckerman is to Roth, only he is far, far funnier). Everyman’s Library has collected the three volumes in a single volume and it is a very worthwhile read. Given how “American” the Rabbit books are, I think non-Americans might find the Bech books more useful since Updike used these stories to locate the U.S. and Americans in the broader world. While they are short stories, the overall effect is very much like a novel.

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  7. I’ve read the Rabbit books twice (so far, can’t wait to re-read) and I consider them the very best in American literature.

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  8. I’ve started getting the Rabbit books on the TBR, thanks to the Popular Penguins series.
    I haven’t got them in the right order yet though, so I’ll probably read Couples first.

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  9. Thanks for the tip-off about the Bech novels… I like the idea of buying them in the Everyman’s Library edition (I’ve already eyed up the Rabbit novel omnibus in that imprint), but in terms of practicality I’m not sure that they’re ideal for toting around on the Tube, where I do the bulk of my reading. It’d be like carting a house brick around in my bag!

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  10. My experience with John Updike has run both hot and cold. I love his short stories. My favorite of his novels is ‘Gertrude and Claudius’ which was wonderful. I thought ‘Rabbit, Run’ was OK, hated ‘Rabbit Redux’, didn’t bother with the rest of the Rabbit series. ‘Couples’ sounds as though it may be good.

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  11. Not that it is a terribly important point, but the characters in Couples are not baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964). These are people who were born between 1930 and 1935 or 6.

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