Monday, 7 February 2011

Couples by John Updike

Set in the early sixties, Couples is about a promiscuous circle of ten couples in the small Massachusetts town of Tarbox. For well over 500 pages the reader follow the couples as they holiday and party together while at the same time they discreetly (mostly) sleep with each others partners.

In a voyeuristic way I enjoyed it and was entertained by it. Aside from a few places where Updike suddenly gives long flowery descriptions, the prose is relatively easy to read and there is a wonderful sense of place. The small town, the houses and the time period are well described, as is the kind of social standing that the couples belong to.

The characters are pretty vile all round as are the attitudes the male characters have towards the female ones. All the female characters are home-makers and are only seen as such. Aside from one exception, none of them have jobs and nor are they expected to have one. They spend most of their time doing chores, hosting parties and having affairs out of either sheer boredom or because they feel they ought to. They are at the age where they are still part of the ‘50s housewife’ life but at the same time they are also young enough to participate in the sexual revolution of the 60s within the confines of their marriages.

While there is a lot to think about and enjoy, it has its faults. The novel is too long and ten couples is perhaps too many, one lady in my book group had to write down a list of all the characters along with all their affairs as it got so confusing. In parts the endless sleeping around became monotonous, the male characters comparing the body of their wives to that of their mistress might have been fine at first but after what seemed like the 6th or 7th time of reading about how saggy a characters wife's belly is compared to a mistress (or vis versa) it got boring.

Couples is a book that I enjoyed more than I thought I would, it was a mixed bag for me in many ways but I’m glad I read it. It's not a book I would recommend but I found it an interesting novel of its time, it not have been written either ten years before or ten years after.

Posted by Jess


  1. Updike is an author I am very keen to read, I hear only positive reviews of his works. I think (think!) I might own this book and I willm ake sure I go home tonight and have a look for it. The premise of the story sounds very interesting.

  2. I have my Mum's original Penguin copy of this book. Apparently it was quite scandalous when it first came out. Must get round to reading it.

  3. Every time John Updike has fiction in The New Yorker (okay, I think I remember two), I really enjoy it, and decide to read one of his novels. I poll my friends who have actually read him, and they always caution me against it because they fear I will find him to misogynistic to bear. The premise of this book really intrigues me, but I wonder if it's one his rumored misogyny would bother me in. I do want to read at least one of his novels one day.

  4. Sounds like this would be interesting, but I probably would get confused with all the characters and bored with the never-ending affairs. I'd be willing to give it a try, though, as I'm always curious about books that were scandalous at one time.

  5. It's been quite a while since I've read anything by John Updike and this sounds like a good way to get back into his work.

    Great blog, by the way. I've only just come across it and I like how it's written by the two of you.

  6. I have not read this one, but I thoroughly enjoyed his Rabbit series, which I read years ago.

  7. I read Couples years ago and as I recall I did enjoy it. It's not nearly as good as his 'Rabbit' books though.

  8. Becky - I have heard mixed things about him but it was a good intro into his work I think.

    Annabel - I am totally not surprised it was considered so when it came out. The shock value may not be there any more but its still pretty bad behaviour.

    Carrie - I was worried about that and every member of our book group agreed that this could have only been written by a man (because of the sexual describtions) Its a debate but I dont think it would bother you in this book.

    Anna - it does go on for 100 more pages than it should and as I said in my review it did get repetative. Worth getting out the library if your not sure.

    olduvaireads - thank you very much for your kind comments. I will read more by this author as he has certainly got my interest.

    TheBookGirl - I do want to read those next!

    Katrina - see comment above ;)

  9. I was immediately drawn to the idea of this book and I think I'd enjoy it even if it is long. I do really hate when I have to make lists of characters, that is part of the reason I've taken such a long break from Victorian novels. (Why do we need 20 characters in one book?)