Thursday, November 02, 2006
John Updike, In the Beauty of the Lilies
John Updike, In the Beauty of the Lilies. This book makes me wonder again, precisely what it is about Updike that I love so much. Because I do - I love reading his books, I love his easy beauty of language, the way everything is said perfectly without strain or effort. But so often I heartily detest his characters. I actually liked the family in this book (it's one of those multi-generational sweeping American epic sort of books), but I like them less down the generations. Clarence Wilmot was a Presbeterian minister around the turn of the century who lost his faith and couldn't continue - he didn't have a plan for an alternate career path and his family drifted into poverty as he succumbed to Tb. I liked Clarence, and empathized with his anemic and hopeless loss of faith, and I also liked his wife and her sturdy toughness. I liked their children, and wish he focused a bit more on Esther. I liked the very different relations with god and faith through the generations - it wasn't clichéd or insincere, although the doubters were more convincing than the pious. Alma DeMott, or Essie, I liked less, and wasn't really rooting for her film career. Her son could have been a great character, a modern anti-hero, but he wasn't quite fleshed out enough to please me. I almost had the feeling that Updike chose religion and cinema as two "great American themes" and set out to write a "great American novel"; that might be unjust, but I also never felt that the cinematic parts of the book were terribly compelling - they reminded me of example essays in an English 101 text. Sometimes with Updike I get this sense of unfulfilled promise - of something intangible lacking - of insufficient passion, perhaps. But I think it is only because I am so infatuated with him as an author, I have very high expectations. So it was a good, even grand, book; but not one of the best or his best.