Jump to content, Jump to navigation.

Amber Paulen

Couples by John Updike

John Updike


Couples was one of the strangest books I’ve read in awhile. As I read I oscillated between the fascination of a spy, sneaking peaks where I shouldn’t be looking, and an increasing appall at the characters’ absence of morality that accompanied my furtive glimpses. Couples was a strange novel because the whole of its 450 pages (in my fine blue library hardcover) dealt with a subject normally used sparingly in literature: adultery. The reason why I chose to read Couples was because it deals with adultery in full, but there was more sleeping around between pages than I had bargained for.

Maybe the adultery theme is so overwhelming because Updike doesn’t follow it through the life of a single character or even a single couple, but instead has ballooned out his vision to a total of ten couples or twenty people. Their extramarital affairs don’t leave this cluster—as large as it is small; after awhile they began to seem incestuous—for their extreme physical (and emotional) proximity to each other in the smallish New England town of Tarbox. As a large group of couples they see each other multiple times per week for parties and dinners and sports; as individual pairings, whether sanctified or unsanctified, they see each other more than once a day.

Couples is set in the “swinging” sixties and so acts as a time piece for that first decade of birth control—the “post pill paradise,” as Gertrude Thorne calls it before sleeping with Piet Hanema—and sexual freedom such as the West hadn’t seen since the Ancient Romans. In the beginning I found it a daunting task to keep all the couples and their relationships straight. I wonder if that’s what Updike had in mind, to scramble the couples up so he could lay them out in individual pieces. Then midway the book hits its stride from the point of view of Piet Hanema and focuses on his affair with Foxy Whitman, who has just moved to Tarbox, pregnant, with her husband Ken.

Though Foxy and Piet consume at least three quarters of the book, Updike does a grand job of setting the scene of the adulterous and faithful couples with the book’s second part, called “Applesmiths and Other Games.” If it wasn’t for Updike’s masterful prose, his skillful sentences combined with skilled construction or craft, I would have given up on the book after fifty pages. In a lesser writer’s hands, the vastness and complexities of multi-pronged adultery could easily have turned to trash.

Upon discovering that her husband is sleeping with Harold little-Smith’s wife, Janet Appleby goes to Harold to inform him of their spouses’ infidelities. They collapse together, stripping off their clothes, into the little-Smiths’ dirty laundry pile. Harold says to Janet:

We’ll all be punished no matter how it goes. That’s a rule of life, people are punished. They are punished for being good, they’re punished for being bad.

At the end of Couples comes the inevitable moral summing up; Tarbox’s Congregational Church burns to the ground in an electric storm. Many of the couples come to watch the church get swallowed in flames. Some come together, but mostly they watch the fire separately, as the couples have also began to dissolve after the denigration of several of the male members. Piet, standing alone, begins to talk to Pedrick, the preacher, who says:

This church isn’t that old stump of a building. The church is people, my friend, people. Human beings.

Couples is a book that I would recommend and not recommend. It’s this duality that makes it so interesting, that kept me reading, fascinated, appalled, fascinated, appalled. Human beings, that seems to sum up the novel entirely.


·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·