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Book Review: S by John Updike

November 29, 2010 2 comments

Giant red letter S on a green background.Summary:
Letters, both hand-written and recorded onto tapes, tell the story of Sarah, a North Shore housewife of a wealthy Massachusetts General Hospital doctor who one day in 1986 decides to go and join a commune in the Arizona desert.  Gradually through the letters both her past and her experiences in the commune are revealed.

Review:
I was intrigued by this book for multiple reasons.  I’ve always enjoyed epistolary novels.  I found Updike’s more famous novel, The Three Witches of Eastwick, endlessly entertaining.  Also, I’ve always been fascinated by communes and cults.  This book certainly contains all three elements.  Sarah’s letters compel the reader to get through them as quickly as possible.  Whether she’s discussing the commune or her past life on the North Shore, the letters are truly fascinating.  Perhaps this is partly because there’s a Stepford-wife like quality to Sarah’s past life, and her current life is so over the top from anything most modern Americans experience.  It provides a fascinating contrast.

The book therefore starts out strong, but falters more and more the further toward the end it gets.  The more about Sarah is revealed, the less sympathetic she becomes.  Additionally, due to the nature of the epistolary novel, some of her actions are not entirely revealed, thus leaving the ending a bit confusing.  Frankly, the ending simultaneously surprised and disappointed me.  I was left wondering what on earth Updike’s point had been.  Was it a feminist stance?  Was it misogynistic?  Was it just a portrait of a person?  The great variety between all these possibilities should demonstrate how confusing the ending is.

It’s interesting to note that Sarah is depicted as a descendant of Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter.  I’m sure this plays into the interpretation of the book a great deal, although personally, I am not sure how.

Overall, this epistolary novel starts out strong and engaging, but the ending leaves the reader a bit confused and let down.  If you’re a big Updike or epistolary novel fan, you will still enjoy the book enough to make it worth your while to read, but all others should probably give it a pass.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Swap.com

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