There is a genre in American drama in which a family get together or reunion builds to a emotional climax where everyone’s feelings are revealed. It is not a genre I love. I am familiar with many plays in this genre but, honestly, I’m not sure if I’ve ever read a novel in that genre until now. So I don’t know whether or not this novel had a big hand in popularizing the genre, or if Updike was just writing something in an already popular style.
There is also a particular style of writing that emerged in the 19th century that examines the psychology of the characters. This style was a necessary development in novels and I went through a Dostoevsky phase so I understand the appeal of this type of writing. But sometime in the late 19th century or early 20th century it got taken to absurd extremes. I am okay with psychological analysis of the characters by an omniscient 3rd person author. I am even okay with a 1st person author offering psychological analysis when the story is told in flashback. Where I struggle with 1st person psychological analysis is when it appears to be in the moment. Nobody is this astute in real life and so I find it adds a huge air of unreality. (Also, if he narrator really is this astute in the moment, as in this novel, why is he unable to control himself? That’s a problem to me.)
A third issue: I don’t like the characters. I get that this is the point but I always struggle with a novel where the only sympathetic character is an overly bright child, or perhaps his mother, who is referred to by both other main characters as “stupid” more than once, even though the novel doesn’t really offer any kind of proof that she is stupid.
But at times all of that is swept away by the beauty of Updike’s writing; his ability to describe particular places or scenes, or his ability to describe particular emotions (either those of the protagonist or the other characters). There are sentences in this book that nearly completely won me over so that everything I’ve written above no longer mattered while in the grip of that sentence or even that paragraph. It’s true throughout the book but it’s particularly true in the moments around Joey’s mothers attack; there are moments there that just about made me change my view of the whole novel.
It’s a shame for me that I don’t like the genre and I don’t like the style, because I really like the writing and it does make me think that I should read more Updike, as I’m likely to enjoy a different style of book more than this one. It is not my kind of novel, but I cannot say for a second that it’s less than good.