Friends With Benefits in 1960s Suburbia: John Updike’s Couples
Reading John Updike's novel, Couples, you'd be smart to make a graph of sorts -- write all the characters' names in a circle and get ready to draw lines from name to name -- because it's the only way to trace all the affairs that happen in that fictional town of Tarbox, Massachusetts, that "post-pill paradise."
Taking place in early-1960s suburbia, the novel centers around ten couples. In a way, they're a very average group of friends: Together they organize games and parties; occasionally they drink too much. Yet, in another way, they're entirely different: They sleep with each other. In fact, in this town -- despite families, careers, and friends -- affairs abound. Marcia little-Smith sleeps with Frank Appleby and Harold little-Smith with Janet Appleby; Eddie Constantine, the pilot, sleeps with Irene Saltz and Carol Constantine with Ben Saltz; even Terry Gallagher, one of the few who still attends church, sleeps with her lute teacher's husband (a modest potter). But this is only the beginning; your graph will crisscross all over like a spiderweb. Still, perhaps like most, these affairs aren't so much about pleasure for pleasure's sake. Yes, pleasure plays a part in it, but the affairs suggest much bigger parts, much bigger motives -- desperate escapes, renewed hopes and dreams, and therapy sessions salve their brittle lives.
This is never truer than for Piet Hanema. Piet, one half of the local real estate and contracting agency, Gallagher & Hanema, is a ladykiller. Piet is unhappy. He struggles with the guilt of his parents' deaths, the dissatisfaction of his job, and the coldness of his marriage. Seeking comfort, he has affairs. All of this, of course, is no secret except to his faithfully blind wife, Angela. But she too must face the truth, when unexpected trouble arises with a new mistress, Foxy Whitman.
The Whitmans are new to Tarbox. They've moved into a fixer-upper -- the same house, in fact, Angela once wanted for her family but was denied, because Piet was afraid of the work and money necessary. Ken Whitman is a robotic man, a scientist becoming obsolete at Boston University. Foxy is a lonely, pregnant woman, long detached from her husband. When they hire Gallagher & Hanema for restorations, it's not long before Piet and Foxy start an affair.
Couples isn't just an infidelity novel in the tradition of Madame Bovary (times ten). It's also a time capsule for the early 1960s, working in many historical references: the sinking of the USS Thresher, the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of JFK, the influence of science (the birth control pill, psychoanalysis) and its effect on American society and Christianity.
John Updike was one of the most prolific writers of his time. He won nearly every major literary award in America and penned over fifty books — including Rabbit, Run; The Centaur; and The Witches of Eastwick -- becoming the voice of American suburbia and its discontent.