Couples – John Updike

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.



Filed under Book Group, John Updike, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review

27 responses to “Couples – John Updike

  1. I also found the book soulless and didn’t get into it and I read it at my own pace. I prefered The poorhouse fair which is quite different and the only other Updike I’ve read.

    • I think you might have misread my post Verity as I didn’t think the book was soulless (its actually growing on me since having met everyone at book group) but the characters were – having said that though as I mention I thought they were quite well drawn and Updike certainly puts you in their heads. It was a brilliant pick of Claire’s for a book group book, I think she thought we might not like it.

      • I did mean the characters in the book were soulless, got my brain in a muddle this morning (doh!). Maybe I’d have got more out of it if I had the chance to discuss it at book group – you’ll have to let us know what the group made of it.

      • No worries verity I am in a muddle brainwise usually until about 3pm hahaha.

        The book group liked it, lots of discussion and its got an 8 of of ten once we all scored and divided it which isnt half bad!

  2. I’ve never read Updike so I might check this out especially since Claire recommends it so highly. I’ve just formed a book club and we’re on our third book now. Someone chose Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (aargh! Don’t get me started on how much I dislike this one.) It’s about 1200 pages long and so tedious. Yes, I do think there should be a limit to the number of pages at least for a book club choice. I’m actually thinking of just cheating and getting the cliff notes. Or would that be unforgivable?

    • I personally, though I did like it, wouldn’t have read thsi first because I think without book group I could have ‘popped it down’ and forgotten it a few times. Its a perfect book group book or joint read. Mind you I don’t know where I would start with Updike, my Gran said ‘the rabbit books in order’.

      Woah a 1200 for book group, I dont think I could ever force people to read a book that long. 500/550 pages is maybe the max… and thats still long.

  3. I found the World according to Garp quite souless and some of the scenes in that spoilt the book for me in many ways. I know everyone else loves that book but I find it hard to like a man who randomly cheats on his wife several times without a thought but then gets upset when his wife dares do the same. That was published in the 70s so maybe its a baby boomer thing.

    • Its possibly books like that that have caused Updike to be occasionally labelled him as being a bit of a male chauvinist. I thought the point of Couples was actually that it showed how women had no role other than babymaking and sexobject housewife and how this wasnt a good thing.

  4. I have read a lot of Updike. Couples is not the place to begin. Try the Rabbit series or the short stories. Updike is not for everyone but he is very good at evoking a certain American time and place.

  5. I read the first hundred pages of Couples and then put it down again. I’d bought it expecting to find something similar to Revolutionary Road – an insight into the dynamics of relationships, with a focus on a large group of friends instead of Yates’ focus on one couple. The blurbs on the back intruiged me with their promise of scandal and sex.

    But the book itself disappointed me. There was very little action or insight into the characters, and by page 85 I decided that the book had missed its chance – I couldn’t get into it. Foxy was an interesting character, but I couldn’t imagine her getting into an affair with grotty Piet.

    Usually, reading a favourable and well-written review of a book I didn’t like might cause me to pick up the book again and give it another go… but I don’t think so this time. I might try the Rabbit books one day though.

    • It’s really interesting that you mention Revoluntionary Road as Linda, one of the book group members, had read that two and adored it and thought this one was as good its just Yates did it much better in less pages if you know what I mean? The writing she said was equally good, so its not like I am saying its Yates vs Updike haha.

      We couldnt imagine the affair but then sometimes we can never work out why some people are with other people, they just have that magnatism.

  6. I’m an Updike fan, but Couples was a DNF… just couldn’t get into it. In The Beauty of the Lilies is my favorite of the few novels I’ve read (still need to get to the Rabbit books). Really enjoy his short stories, too.

    As far as length for book clubs – although we have no formal rule, anything over 350 pages is pushing it for my group!

    • We were wondering if Updike fans would love or loathe Couples and felt they might be marmite on it like people can be with him full stop. I havent heard of The Beauty of Lillies, I like the title of it though.

  7. I’m wondering how you would compare Peyton Place which I think you wrote about a little while ago with Couples? Or are the styles so different, they wouldn’t really make a good comparison (I haven’t read either). Updike is a little hit and miss for me with his novels but I do think he’s a terrific short story writer.

    • I don’t think the pair are comparable at all to be honest. When Claire read the premise I thought ‘oooh maybe’ and I think she did too (shes actually reading that for the other book group she is in next) but they are two completely different books I wouldnt want to compare, espcially as this is to do with the couples by Peyton Place has a much wider scope, and in parts is much more shocking… well uncomfortable to read.

      Sounds like the short stories might be worth a go, everyones recommending them.

  8. gaskella

    I’ve been meaning to read Couples for years – mind you it’s only recently come back into print, but I have my Mum’s original Penguin – I will read it, as it’s probably one of those defining books of its era (but I’ve yet to read Revolutionary Road or Peyton Place yet either)!

    • I think Revoluntionary Road and this are comparable from what one of the other book group members said, not so much Peyton Place in my humble opinion. They are both cracking reads. Its made me want to read Revolutionary Road for sure.

  9. m

    I also read Couples in a hurry for a book group and I didn’t think all that much of it as I was reading it; but after a few days, I found that I was still thinking about it – always a good sign – and in the end I decided that it was quite brilliant!

  10. I had some deja vu reading this post. I think another blogger reviewed this book awhile back and said virtually the same things. I guess I’ll be skipping this one.

  11. Its a very rare occasion when I stunble upon a blog and love what I read because it has some great points.

    One rule i Live by is no metter what when I start a new book its a new book and I do my upmost not to compare so having not read any books by John Updike you have left me intrigued with a need to pop onto amazon or into waterstones.

    Its strange how much I understand you here “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” one part of the book can spoil the whole feeling of it, i occasionally re read the section(which i hate having to do) just to double check that I havent missed something.

    So heres to Updike and his bathroom scene like many other authors out there they leave us in a pikkle and lets toast him again as he just got himself tons of more copies sold just by your review!!! :o)

    • I try my hardest with the ‘new book’ every book I read and not compare it to anything else but it can be really difficult.

      It wasnt that I missed something the whole scene just left me really cold towards the book. It didnt break the spell like some sentences in a book can but it just didnt gel with me.

      I second you in your heres to authors that leave us in a pickle, quite right lol.

      • Samantha


        Recently I received an email from a gentleman at my church. He made reference about John Updike’s “Couples’ and said I remind him of a specific character. I’ve researched the book but am not sure how to take his comment. Since you are familiar with the book, I was curious if you could shed some light.

        I just want to be clear on what is insinuated. Also I need to know if I should smack him him in the face. Just kidding. Hopefully you’ll be willing to help. IF not, sorry to have bothered you.



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