book cover of The Women Who Got Away

The Women Who Got Away

A novel by

If John Updike had never published anything but short stories--if the novels, essays, verse and reams of occasional prose vanished into thin air--he would still be a presence to reckon with in American letters. Having said that, it's only fair to point out that his 13th collection, Licks of Love, is one of the master's patchier efforts. He has lost none of his notorious fluency, and even the duds here are enlivened by lovely stabs of perception; but in several tales ("The Women Who Got Away", "New York Girl," "Natural Color"), Updike seems perversely bent on proving his detractors right, serving up familiar narratives of adultery and 1960s-era swinging. There is no reason why lust and rage shouldn't dance attendance on this randy genius's old age. But he's already written about the art of extracurricular canoodling at such length that these entries are bound to seem like retreads.That's the bad news. The good news is that the rest of the collection is a sheer delight. "My Father on the Verge of Disgrace" explores some fascinating Oedipal outskirts, even as the narrator's first cigarette takes on a theological accent: "It was my way of becoming a human being, and part of being human is being on the verge of disgrace". In "How Was It, Really?" Updike unveils the real dirty secret of old age, which is not the persistence of erotic appetite but the inevitable, appalling failure of memory. Best of all, he returns to two of his longest running franchises, with admirable results in both cases. "His Oeuvre" revives that Semitic doppelganger Henry Bech for one more lap around the track, and finds the author making intermittent fun of his own fancy prose style. Harry Angstrom is, needless to say, beyond hope of resurrection. But in a 182-page novella, "Rabbit Remembered", Updike brings back his survivors for a superb, surprising curtain call. The author's present-tense notation of American life (whose paradoxical epicentre is, as always, Brewer, Pennsylvania) remains as mesmerising as ever. And despite his death, the putative hero is everywhere, as his illegitimate daughter returns to the unwilling bosom of the Angstrom clan: "A whiff of Harry, a pale glow, an unsettling drift comes off this girl, this thirty-nine-year-old piece of evidence". Wallowing in this unexpected bonus, Updike fans should steel themselves for a single pang of regret: this is likely to be the last Rabbit he will pull from his hat. --James Marcus

Genre: Romance

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Paperback Editions

August 2007 : UK Paperback

Title: The Women Who Got Away (Penguin Great Loves)
Author(s): John Updike
ISBN: 0-14-103293-6 / 978-0-14-103293-1 (UK edition)
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Availability: Amazon   Amazon UK