Before I talk about the book I think it’s only fair that I explain in part why the circumstances of reading it might have made me feel slightly less about the book than I could have. Reading should be like work, if you have personal issues or busy personal stuff going on outside the office leave it there, and really I should have applied this rule to ‘Couples’ by John Updike. You see it was the latest read for the book group I co-founded ‘The Riverside Readers’ and chosen by Claire of Paperback Reader. The thing was I actually forgot book group was this week until Saturday when I thought ‘oops’ and grabbed it. Only in doing this slightly rushed it and formed a grudge against it due to my own lack of social planning awareness. So when it was very good it wasn’t half bad and when it wasn’t great it was dire, that was my mind frame. I am just being honest from the off as I am with any review.
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…’ and we do indeed meet ten couples who live in Tarbox, New England during the Kennedy and post-pill era of the ‘swinging’ sixties. These couples, who dine with each other, discuss politics and religion with each other, bitch about each other and then sleep with each other behind each others backs are really the soulless heart and soul of the book.
I call them soulless (not the book) 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 or are immensely readable, which they are. When I say some of the couples I actually mean two, 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 on certain subjects. However, 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 in this modern age maybe. However the book is much more than just about ‘couples’ really its about womens roles at that time, their boredom and how with new drugs they could spend their spare time with other activties, though of course not all women did this.
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.
A book that will: not be as salacious as you might hope but if you already love Updike or insights into the 1960’s then this could be a big winner for you. 7/10
This book does prove that book groups make you read things you never would. Which titles have been like that for you? Do you think books can ever be too long for a book group? Has an author ever done something (don’t plot spoil if you answer this please) that has ruined a scene for you so much it’s almost ruined the whole book? Have you read ‘Couples’ and if so what did you think? Which Updike books are the best way to start with him and which are the must reads?
Fellow book group member Kim’s thoughts here.