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Wednesday, December 20, 2006


Brazil by John Updike

December 14, 2006

I've read a number of Updike's books and I can honestly say this is the worst I've read. This has to be one of the worst books I've ever read, period. It's only made worse by the author's stellar track record otherwise.

For a story that's supposed to be a retelling of "Tristan and Isolde"--a precursor to "Romeo and Juliet"--this book is as romantic as a night at a strip club and as tragic as wearing two different socks. From my count Isabel fathers 5 children whose father is most likely NOT Tristao. That tells you all you need to know about the romance. As for the tragedy, both characters had less personality than a Brazil nut, so why should I care? By page 200 I'd have killed one of them myself if it meant an end to this horrible book.

Here's a summary of the plot: Tristao is black. Isabel is white. They meet on a beach in Rio. They go back to her uncle's place so she can lose her virginity. Over the next few months they have sex a bunch more times. When her father gets upset about their relationship, they run off to Sao Paolo and have lots more sex on a sort of honeymoon. She's captured by hired goons and he spends two years making Volkswagen Beetles until he rescues her and they go off into the wilderness where he becomes a gold miner and she proceeds to have sex with anyone who will pay--and in the process fathers the first two children who are likely not Tristao's. He finds a big gold nugget that brings heat down on them so they flee into the jungle. (Here the story really begins to go off the rails.) Their two children are taken away by hostile natives and never seen again. Then Tristao and Isabel are captured by some kind of warrior-missionaries and Tristao is enslaved to make canoes while Isabel becomes the head warrior-missionary's third wife. She gives birth to her new husband's child--who is mentally challenged--while having relations with the guy's second wife all while Tristao continues to toil away for the next three years. She finally goes to see a shaman so she can free Tristao by switching races with him. So now she is black and he is white. They head back towards civilization, having a lot of kinky sex on the way. Eventually they return to her father in Brasilia, who seems to convince himself that his daughter just got a really great tan in the jungle. Tristao becomes a middle-manager in a textile factory. Isabel becomes a docile wife, giving birth to the one child who might be Tristao's. Then she grows bored and has a fling with a tennis instructor, giving birth to twins who are definitely not Tristao's. (He maybe has a few flings of his own in the meantime.) And then after a dozen years one of them goes on a walk and dies. The end.

That's what the story is, more or less. You talk about the societal issues and allegories and whatnot, but what I described above is the actual content of the story. It's not about love; it's about SEX. These two people are faithful to each other only until someone else walks by. It's not tragic, unless you think (like I do) how much better off these two would have been never having met. The plot itself becomes ridiculous and the last 50 pages tedious.

I am actually feeling in quite a funk now as I write this. This book surpasses disappointment to a level of utter revulsion. You can say I'm a prude or a simpleton, that I don't GET it, in which case we'll have to agree to disagree. I have no use for this book and I deeply regret wasting time to read about two people for whom I have nothing but contempt. If this is any kind of portrait of the human spirit...it's better not to contemplate that thought.

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