Reading the “Couples” was slow at first. I needed some adapting to Updike’s distanced, cold style and unexpected, difficult-to-understand associations. Then something clicked and I got caught in his lush, perhaps a bit overwritten descriptions and intriguing conversations between the characters.
The characters are married couples. They live in a fictional town in Massachusetts called Tarbox and, though married and with children, they enjoy what they call a “post-pill paradise”, or more specifically, they take every chance they get to have sex among themselves. However, this partner trade has certain rules. It seems to be the best when two couples meet, spend time, get close and simply exchange partners. That’s tolerated. But then the main character, Piet, goes on to break the rules and sleep with his friends’ wives without including them – he plays a dirty solo game, it seems, and that makes him a thorn in the eye of tricked husbands, especially one Freddie Thorn who, battling with his own insecurities, can’t let it go and patiently awaits his revenge.
Piet has a lovely wife whom everyone adores and looks up to. She is the embodiment of her own name, Angela. Sort of. When Foxy, the new woman in town (pregnant and soon to become Piet’s lover, different than the previous ones) meets Angela, she feels like she is visiting some luxurious kingdom where observations and impressions bow to each other like some aristocrats taking a walk. And though perfect, or because she’s so perfect, and though he thinks of her pussy as heavenly, Piet can’t help cheating on her first with Georgina (Freddy Thorn’s wife), then Foxy (Ken’s wife), and finally with any of those women who’ll have him.
It seems the couples’ only preoccupation is how to spend the weekend. They go skiing together, organize dance parties and fun game nights, they press tight against each other when they dance and make sexual allusions in a conversation. Their children stay home with a babysitter or even come to the party and then go upstairs to sleep while parents are shaking their sexual inhibitions off. And this paradise had the potential to last forever, had not Piet broken the rules and started playing a game that seemed to threaten the other couples.
Though the critics gave mixed reviews about this novel, I think it deserves a bow and a place among the great American books. It certainly is a “time capsule of the era”, as someone called it, (with sharp comments about America’s monstrous economy and politics, and reflection on Kennedy’s assassination), and a stripped-naked portrayal of the idle elite of the ’60s. It also brushes upon the topic of death in an interesting way, through the main character’s conversations with his daughters and through his own thoughts about the transience of time. We see how in an effort to escape death that too early took away his parents, Piet energetically enters women, lots of them, similarly to what the other couples are doing with sex to deal with bigger problems in their life that they are too weak to repair. Towards the end of the book, in a letter to Piet, Foxy writes: “After weeks of chastity I remember lovemaking as an exploration of a sadness so deep people must go in pairs, one cannot go alone.”
What I love about Updike’s writing are his lush descriptions and wonderful, unexpected, unusual comparisons and metaphors. Angela’s butt become two waning moons catapulted from the Earth, Freddie Thorn’s lips become some slimy, flat sea animal and they part like an anus. It seems the descriptions become the richest and most successful when he is describing different Tarbox women. Salty like the sea or the marshes that Tarbox is so famous for, they developed seaweed for hair and cosmic elements for face and hair. They are big, fat, small, skinny, freckled, wide-eyed, bony, flexible, acrobatic, beautiful, cunning, unique, legs-spread-wide-open…Their women are both magnificent and something shallow, they give them freedom and keep them enslaved. I love the levels and depths of his characters, even if someone sees them as shallow (at a party that turns into Kennedy’s wake, Bea says that she could never vote for him because of those trivial social things, but she LOVED the way he dressed).
Finally, is the book worth reading? Absolutely! Despite Updike’s cold tone as if an alien is describing things and people on our planet with complete moral indifference, which I usually don’t like, his minute characterization, patient narrative, humorous conversations, observations of only too human reactions made me warm up to those “sinning”, promiscuous couples and made me curious about how their lives progress. I was sorry the perfect, sexual, reckless, without-a-care-in-the-world bubble had to burst in the end. I miss it.