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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

In the Beauty of the Lilies

In the Beauty of the Lilies by John Updike

6 of 11 people found the following review helpful:

September 3, 2004

My review of this book boils down to just this: John Updike is too good of a writer for this novel. The uneven story stretches from 1910 to 1990 and tells the story of the Wilmot family through four generations. Everyone in the Wilmot family has a selfish streak--Clarence's wife notes at one point--not unlike Franzen's "The Corrections" or Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury", which are both superior family sagas. The Wilmot family, though, lacks the complete dysfunctionality of the Lamberts or the inbreeding, racism, and tragic spirt of the Compsons.

Clarence Wilmot in 1910 loses his faith in God and gives up the ministry. I thought Clarence was a rather dull character and nothing much really HAPPENED in those first 100 pages or so that focus on him. But unlike the rest of the book, the first section only focuses on three years.

Teddy from 1914-193? is unnerved by Clarence's death and can't really settle on any kind of career that suits him. He eventually finds a happy little rut in the Postal Service and settles down with the first girl who takes an interest in him. Teddy is so dull that this part of the book was pretty much a waste of time.

Essie from 1936-1960 is an ambitious girl who after kissing a boy at 13 becomes a certain word that rhymes with "glut" and eventually at a beauty pageant meets a photographer who helps launch her career first in modeling and later in film, but at least Updike dodged the old cliche of having her sleep with the photographer. This section could have been named "Candle in the Wind" because like Norma Jean, Essie changes her name--to Alma DeMott--and eventually becomes a second-tier star, not quite a Marilyn Monroe or Doris Day, who Updike based the character on--read the acknowledgements in the back for confirmation of this. This section was interesting, but seeing Essie at age 7 and 13 didn't add a whole lot to my knowledge of the character. Eliminating those entirely would have allowed Updike to add more detail to her life in Hollywood, which was more interesting, although stereotypical.

Then for a while from 1960-1987 nothing really happens. Between Clarence and Teddy and Teddy and Essie there's really no break in the time between them, but starting with Essie, we start to see jumps in time first from 1936 to 1943 and then another to 1948 before the story goes pretty much straight on to 1960. But then there's the biggest jump of all between '60 and '87, although there are a couple of flashbacks to the '70s and early '80s, but not nearly the detail as in the rest of the book. This gives the novel an uneven flow by this point, almost as if Updike heard a clock ticking in his brain and knew he had to get this thing finished.

So then we pick up from 1987-1990 with Clark. Using Less Than Zero as a basis--see the acknowledgements again--Clark is the stereotypical Hollywood party boy into sex, drugs, and rock n roll. He winds up with his Great-Uncle Jared (Teddy's brother), working at Jared's ski lodge. Then he runs into a girl who he thinks is just another notch in the belt, but takes him back to the radical Jesse Smith's Lower Branch compound--Lower Branch/Branch Davidion, get it? With little prompting, Clark becomes a disciple and the cult's PR man. If you happened to be alive during the Waco siege, then you already know how this will end, except for one little twist that allows Clark a little bit of honor. This part especially seemed like a stereotype, although Updike takes pains not to make Jesse or the compound exactly like Koresh and Waco.

There's a lot of lip service given to God and each character has a different relationship with the Almighty. Clarence is a nonbeliever. Teddy is apathetic, or you might say wishy-washy. Essie believes in God sort of as a secret lover guiding her towards a fantastic destiny, but then after getting swept up in Hollywood, her devotion peters out. Clark is a wishy-washy fanatic and I never got the sense he really BELIEVED all the stuff Jesse preached--he just latched on to the cult because he couldn't find anything better to give his life to. These relationships are really my interpretation and I think it was all sort of half-baked at best. There wasn't enough in the story to really fill out those conclusions.

I think the problem is that Updike doesn't seem to know if he wants to chronicle American history through the 20th Century, document the growth of the American film industry, or detail changing relationships with God, so he tries to do all three at once and it isn't successful at any of the three. Jack of all trades, master of none.

What Updike is a master of is the craft of writing, so that even a flawed novel like "In the Beauty of the Lilies", while uneven and at times dull, still has some beautiful moments of prose. As a writer, I've been studying Updike's work, because I love the way he brings out small details, that while sometimes are too much and weigh the scene down, make a description come to life. It's really for those moments that I can give this 3 stars despite it's other problems. And while lip service is given to the relationships with God and the ties of family, it does give you sort of a topic sentence you can use to think about those issues yourself.

However, if you're just a reader, then I would suggest you not read this and try some of Updike's other works. Or better yet, read the two books I mentioned earlier.

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