Wednesday, August 26, 2009

the last book I read

Marry Me by John Updike.

Jerry Conant and Sally Mathias are in love. Trouble is, they're also married. To other people. Jerry is married to Ruth, while Sally is married to Richard. Yes, it's Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. Only the names have been changed (well, not only the names).

Clearly if you're in love and want to get married and spend the rest of your lives together, as Jerry and Sally do, and you happen to be already married to someone else, at some point those current spouses are going to have to be brought up to speed on the situation. Chances are they're not going to be too happy about it, either. Also, both couples have children. Also, as if that weren't enough, it turns out Ruth and Richard had an affair a while previously - in their case it was just a bit of discreet afternoon delight though, nothing worth breaking up families over.

So the deed is done, and Ruth and Richard are put in the picture. But.....falling in love with someone other than your spouse doesn't necessarily mean you instantly stop having feelings for him or her. And marrying and spending the rest of your life with someone is a bit different from a few stolen afternoons among the Connecticut sand dunes. And then there's the kids. Who knows how it would turn out? And there'd be no going back. So doubts start to creep in.

In a lot of ways this reads like a companion piece to Updike's earlier and more celebrated novel Couples, in that it chronicles the lives and loves of a group of well-off, middle-class, self-absorbed white people from New England. I actually enjoyed this one more, partly because of the tighter focus on just a pair of couples rather than the twenty or so people you were expected to keep up with and care about in Couples. As with that book (and Rabbit, Run as well) there's a bit of a problem, which is that none of the characters is particularly likeable or sympathetic. This Amazon reviewer complains about "a bunch of whiny, spoiled, middle-class cowards" and, while a bit harsh, there's something in that. According to this Updike interview Marry Me is a bit of an anomaly in the Updike canon, being pulled together from some earlier writings, some of them previously published elsewhere, which might account for its seeming like a bit of a throwback.

Anyway, it's very enjoyable, and Updike's prose style is always a pleasure. Just don't be fooled by the title (or the subtitle "A Romance") into expecting anything uplifting or romantically life-affirming.

[Note: the link you can follow by clicking on the book's title in the first line takes you to Amazon's online copy of the first chapter, just so you can check a bit of it out for yourself. I'll do this for any where such an extract is available in future.]