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.

John Updike
“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

25 thoughts on “John Updike, The lovely troubled daughters of our old crowd (Review)

  1. I went through a whole Updike period in the late 80s-early 90s and at the time found him very insightful on the subject of marriage, but it’s been ages since I’ve read one of his books. I have a whole shelf full.

    • I really liked this story Guy – the language is quite delicious, and it felt cheeky. I love it when there are things going on under the surface that the reader needs to tease out, that aren’t explicitly told to us – though there’s always the risk that we might tease out the opposite of what the author intended! I know I have at times!

      Anyhow, I really must read that first Rabbit book.

  2. If you’d like to consider Updike’s voice on gender from the point of view suggested in the para beginning ‘So, here’s the challenge.’, read the essay by David Foster Wallace called ‘Certainly the end of something or other, one would sort of have to think’. It’s in Consider the Lobster (which I’m about to return to CPLS).

    • Oh dear Lesley, you have just increased my Kindle TBR to 21 books! I have read some David Foster Wallace essays, and in my pile of TBR printouts have, I’m sure, the title essay, but the whole book looks interesting. This story is certainly interesting from the point of view of description of girls and women but not knowing Updike I don’t know whether the narrator’s voice is Updike’s or whether we are meant to see the narrator as oblivious and, yes, sexist. I rather thought the latter. I’ll be interested to read the essay.

    • Well, I’ve now read the essay, Lesley. Very interesting. The last line I think is how I felt about this narrator here, i.e. that he doesn’t get that he’s an a**hole! I wouldn’t have put it quite that way, but certainly I felt the narrator doesn’t get that whatever is going on with the girls (whether we think there’s something wrong in their choices or not) can be laid largely at the feet of their parents. I felt that was so obvious, that Updike was with me, the reader, in seeing the narrator’s obliviousness, rather than agreeing with the narrator.

      The two questions I see are: is Updike presenting the narrator as lacking self-awareness regarding his (and his friends’) impact on the girls (and I assumed he was – I assumed the collection title “Trust me” was probably suggesting to us the opposite about his protagonists?), and does Updike really think that the girls’ choices are wrong (and here I wasn’t quite so sure)?

      I certainly agree with Wallace regarding his prose.

      Have you read the story? Have you read other Updikes? What do you think?

      • So glad you like the DFW essay. I read masses of Updike when I was much younger and haven’t felt a need to keep up with him. I remember him as a lovely writer at the level of the sentence but a disturbing one for what I read as misogyny. And in particular misogyny about sex, where the power of sexuality is perverted by the misogyny. The abiding image from my reading of him is one of such reification of the woman involved that I’d dearly like to forget it.

        • Yes, I liked it and thank you for pointing me to it Lesley. As I think I said I’ve read a few of his essays and am always happy to read more. As for Updike, I am more intrigued than ever, after the discussion here, to read a novel of his.

  3. I’ve read Witches of Eastwick and one other Updike novel I can’t remember but I do remember I have a love/hate feeling about him. His writing is marvelous but he can be so uncomfortably male that it makes me cringe. Your enthusiasm for the story is making me think I might have to try him again because it has been a long time.

    • Thanks Stefanie. I’d be interested in your opinion of this story. There is maleness but felt/assumed that Updike expected us to see his narrator’s delusion – but perhaps Updike’s view of his delusions doesn’t quite extend as far as some of ours? I don’t know Updike well enough and I don’t think the maleness is over the top in this story.

  4. Florence King once wrote that “Updike’s style is an exquisite blend of Melville and Austen: reading him is like cutting through whale blubber with embroidery scissors.” (“Phallus in Wonderland”, collected in Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye.

    I find the section you quote maddening for a different reason: the assumption that his shorthand touches will get a nod of recognition. The writer who tries to be evocative, and fails, irritates me. (Perhaps Hemingway did more harm with the first few pages of A Farewell to Arms, with a tone that hundreds would imitate and damn few match, than with all the hunting, fishing, bullfights, etc. that followed.) No, Mr. Updike, I did not grow up among the prosperous and adulterous of New England; any women I knew who were a hand at macrame seemed to have learned it without classes; makeup was a perfectly serviceable class marker but said nothing about divorced parents.

    • Interesting George. I’m enjoying this conversation about Updike and am learning a lot about how different people react to him. Those things – macrame, aerobics and no make-up – were certainly common to my experience of the 70s and marked some sort of sense of return to the natural and the healthy? But the fascinating thing is what he opposes these activities to?

  5. Whisperer of the Gingivae You write an elegant Review today, as everyday: My view of your review Sees you as one of few Readers who review And open my eyes With your wise surmise

    More ink to your pen WG’s


    Sent from my iPhone

    • Oh no, bmpermie, I hadn’t seen it so thanks a bunch. What amazing photos. And I even know who Malin is now, don’t I? I’m glad you posted it here – funny place or not!

  6. I read Couples in the 70’s. As I recall I had little sympathy for any of the characters. One image which stuck in my mind is one man after wearying of his mistress talks of her being an untidy housewife, she had a piece of bacon rind in a novel as a book mark.
    Might be interesting to re read and the short stories from my now prespective.

    • Thanks bmpermie. I am fascinated by all these comments on Updike’s work. Are we supposed to sympathise with that man? Or with any of the unsympathetic characters? When Updike writes these characters that seem unappealing or deluded to us, is that what Updike is wanting us to see? That seems to be the question I’m hearing.

  7. In the way of things (the father of a friend subscribes to NYRB; she reads it after him; I read it after her), I’ve just read an NYRB article by Hermione Lee on Updike. If anyone wants to follow this up it’s the May 8-21 issue and the article is called He Gave ‘the Mundane Its Beautiful Due’. Lee reviews the short stories and a biography. She isn’t really interested in U’s take on sex in the way you’ve mentioned and I’ve responded to; is more interested in the (extremely close) relationship between U’s life and his work.

  8. Its been over 20 years since I read the Rabbit books, which I adored. For me, Updike’s triumph was to get the reader caring about a character who wasn’t very likeable, Rabbit, an American everyman who had many flaws. If I recall correctly, misogyny being one of them. I look forward to your reading just one Rabbit. BTW, I did enjoy the short story and whilst I’ve read 8 or 9 of his novels, I’ve only read a couple of his short stories.

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