John Updike, The lovely troubled daughters of our old crowd (Review)
I have an old-friend-cum-ex-colleague who has been asking me for longer than I can remember to read John Updike. He even, a year or so ago, sent me a link to a Kindle special for Rabbit, Run. I obediently bought it, and I do intend to read it, I do. However, I recently reorganised my Kindle and discovered that I have a TBR pile there of 20 books! How can that be? I hardly ever buy for the Kindle. But, there you are, the Kindle Cloud never lies, so I must have. All this is to say that I realised it could be some time before I got to Updike, so when I saw a story by him appear on the Library of America a year ago, I printed it out! It finally reached the top of the pile and I’ve just read it. My friend is right. I really should read (more) Updike.
The story, “The lovely troubled daughters of our old crowd”, is told from the point of view of a male member of a group of couples who socialised and holidayed together over many years – indeed from the time their daughters were two or three to now, when they are in their mid-twenties. Well, until they were somewhere in their teens anyhow, because the old crowd is no longer together – not only due to “the children, really, growing unenthusiastic and resistant” to group holidays but due to “the divorces as they began to build up”.
He compares happy times of the past – from his perspective – to the less than exciting or fulfilling things all their daughters are doing now – from his perspective. He also compares the daughters to their mothers – and again, of course, it’s from his perspective. This is the important thing about the story – his perspective. We know nothing really of what the girls thought then or think now. We only know what a now middle-aged man thinks. Should we trust his view? What does the fact that Updike included this in a collection, published in 1987, titled (presumably by him) Trust me tell us about his intention?
Late in the story, the narrator also compares the girls to the “daughters of people we hardly knew”. These daughters “are married to stockbrokers or off in Oregon being nurses or in Mexico teaching agronomy” while
our daughters haunt the town as if searching for something they missed, taking classes in macramé or aerobic dancing, living with their mothers, wearing no make-up, walking up beside the rocks with books in their arms like a race of little nuns.
So, here’s the challenge. From his point of view, there’s something wrong with these girls. They are not getting married, they are not in high status or highly admirable jobs or situations. Well, we readers might ask, why should they be, given that their parents have clearly not set good examples of happy marriages? Indeed, our narrator, who’s in “about the last marriage left”, reveals a wandering eye. We wonder, in fact, whether they may have been swinging couples. We might also ask, though, what is wrong with the choices the daughters are making? Why should they wear make-up? To catch a man? What is wrong with walking “beside the rocks with books”? And, do they want to marry a stockbroker?
I love the complexity of this, the fact that Updike has chosen to tell this story through decidedly subjective eyes, and yet has managed to leave the interpretation surprisingly open. It’s a story, I suspect, that can be read very differently depending on each reader’s experience and point of view, despite some givens in the text.
Before I conclude, I want to mention the style. The tone is intimate – as though the narrator is talking to one of his old friends. He refers, for example, to Mary Jo Addison and “that bad spell of anorexia”, implying we know all about Mary Jo’s problems. There’s also some lovely imagery, such as this description of the young girls with “their pale brushed heads like candles burning in the summer sunlight”. Decorative but not very necessary? Is this how they were treated? And, overall, there’s a sense of disconnect between the narrator’s nostalgia and the reality of their lives. I’m not sure he’s unreliable exactly, but he does seem rather deluded about what role he and his friends may have played in who the girls are now.
“The lovely troubled daughters of our old crowd” is such a sly story. It suggests that the daughters are troubled, are somehow wrong, and maybe they are, maybe they’re not, but that is not the real, or the whole, story. And therein lies the lovely irony in the title.
“The lovely troubled daughters of our old crowd”
First published: in The New Yorker on April 6, 1981; later republished in his collection Trust me (1987)
Available: Online at the Library of America