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Couples - John Updike I read Rabbit, Run a few weeks ago and enjoyed it so when I stumbled upon this available on the e-book shelf while looking for something to read (rather than waiting for another of my holds to come in from the library), I picked it up. This was better (more complete, held together and somehow more full). It should read as 4.5 stars, alas when will there be a better rating system?

Updike's prose is once again, stunning at times, and his portrait of the tedium of marriage certainly strikes a cord. However, I was ulitimately not convinced by his characters. So much of the book is clear and bright realism, it is a shame to feel that the thing is contrived. I think I needed it to end after the fourth section (Breakthrough) and before things were so resolved in Spring Again.

Despite the title, we learn early on in the novel that these couples are not units. Instead, they are all somewhat free agents in the complex social circle of the Hanemas (Piet, the best we get for main character, and Angela), Thornes (Freddy and Georgene), Applebys (Frank and Janet), little-Smiths (Harold and Marcia), Constantine (Eddie and Carol), Saltz (Ben and Irene), Whitmans (Ken and Foxy), and Guerins (Roger and Bea). Updike sets the tone with: "Prayer and masturbation had so long been mingled in Piet's habits that in hearing the benediction he pictured his mistress naked" clearly alerting the reader to both the sexual nature of the book and the likelihood that the couples will "intermingle". Simultaneously, Foxy notes that "Every marriage is a hedged bet." and ironically plans for Ken to have his first mistress (note that it is first, not last or only) when his wife becomes pregnant. The irony here, of course is not just that it is Foxy and not Ken who takes a first lover, but that their hedged bet, in the end, fails.

Updike's play with words reminds me of Nabokov at times: "kissed her shoulder in token of the love they should not this month make," WOW. I would have been impressed if it had been "this night", but "this month" gives it such startlingly poignant resonation. Similarly, "an evening when marriages closed in upon themselves like flowers from which the sun is withdrawn," very prettily paints the loneliness that each of these couples experience in their relationships. One complaint I will make about this novel is that none of the people are actually happy in their relationship. They are all commited to the status quo and respect their partners, but none of them appear to have any emotional connection with their spouses.

I did not like the Puritanical way that Piet's affair with Georgene was portrayed. Certainly she is his first mistress and she does remain "faithful" to him (as far as we know) throughout. However, he does fall rather quickly from first taking up with Georgene; he moves on to Foxy and Bea and Carol in the course of the next year. Are we to understand that once he opened the door, he could no longer restrain himself? I would have expected him to be a little less fluid (despite the caricature..yes, not characterization..of him as the red-headed ape). Or maybe the novel should not have opened with this portrayal of an affair as being so unlikely. After all, when Piet first takes up with Georgene, the whole Marcia/Frank/Janet/Harold rectangle is already underway.

I was also not convinced by Janet's desire for Harold. I understand swinging (both as a concept and a lifestyle) but "her affair had proved to be not a revenge but a convenience, and Janet's idealism asked of life more than a rectangular administration of reassurance and sex." If she was going to sleep with Harold simply to not feel left out, it should not have developed into its own affair. I was much more satisfied when Freddy (in the same predicament) simply refused to fuck Angela (altho he allowed Piet to think he had). If Janet/Frank/Marcia/Harold were going to have a full swap one would expect it to have been mutual from the beginning or not to have lasted as long as it seems to have lasted. I think the less detailed (but implied) realtionship between the Saltzes and the Constantines was much more realistic.

Angela's argument for psycho-analysis really hit home: "'It's not a question of natural or unnatural or right or wrong. It's understanding why you do things so you can stop doing them. Or enjoy doing them.'" I'm not quite sure that anything can provide us with such understanding (especially not therapy), but isn't this the ultimate blight of not only these characters but humanity as a whole: how do we/can we understand (and therefore create) our own happiness? Along the same lines, the newly analyzed Angela makes one of the saddest statements of the book: "'No, you do it alone. I'm discovering you do everything alone. You know when I used to feel most alone? When we were making love.'" Certainly not something any husband wants to hear.

I did like that in the end, I found Freddy to be the most likeable. He is true throughout (as far as we know he does not engage in any affairs and he is consistent to his own character), his whole being is involved in an attempt to be accept his own mortality, he does not take advantage of Piet's need and fuck Angela (even if he does create the illusion and cause Piet some angst), and he holds up his end of the bargain to help Foxy. It turns out Georgene knows him best: "'Freddy just wants to be human. He knows you all think he's ridiculous so he's adopted that as his act." Maybe there is one happy couple here, even if she is chasing after Piet.

Ultimately, the lesson is "The first breath of adultery is the freest; after it, constraints aping marriage develop." Clearly once you start fucking someone they have claims upon you (at least if you want to remain in the same social circle) and the webs start to wind. It seems that the best option for these folks might be a bit of celibacy. Overall it is an interesting read with some great comments about relationships, adultery, and the human quest for connection. The plot is contrived and too neat at the end, it was really a rambling character piece and would have been better served to end without all the ends tied up.