Owen Mackenzie, hero of Updike’s new novel Villages, is an inveterate philanderer looking back on his life. In the New England villages of the title, Owen moved from a sheltered boyhood to a cutting-edge programming job to comfortable retirement—all the while bedding a staggering number of women. His sexual escapades give veteran author Updike a chance to meditate on his favorite topics: the mores of American suburbia as they changed through the ‘60s and ’70s, and the physical and emotional ramifications of sex itself.
Knopf. 321 pages. $25. ISBN: 1400042909
"… a wondrous sexual and social retrospective of small-town living over the last half-century. … Was ordinary life, other than to the writer, ever so rich in virtue and in vice?" Fay Weldon
"Recollection, and sensory observation, regularly bring out Updike’s noted gift for precise visual realization. … Updike has been accused by detractors of over-fine writing, but he is that rare writer who never leaves us in doubt as to what his characters are passing through, what their lives are surrounded by."
"The novel is full of pointed, humorous and occasionally acerbic remarks on contemporary life. … Although the novel can be perfectly well appreciated for itself, our pleasure becomes more refined and complicated when specific moments recall ones in earlier books." William Pritchard
"There are the precise, naughty similes we’ve come to enjoy from Updike—no one else would describe a woman’s nipples as ‘rabbits’ noses’ or a condom as a ‘stork-stopper.’ And there is the magical way in which Updike’s ability to describe the mundane tasks and travails of life in glowingly vivid images imbues even the most casual musings of Villages with a warmth verging on fervor."
San Jose Mercury News
"The same old Updike protagonist—the male driven by hazily understood sexual urges—goes through the same old life. … Owen remains unfettered by second thoughts or worries; he has arrived at the end of his days determined that not only is all vanity, but he couldn’t care less." Judith Neuman Beck
New York Times
"This novel … focuses almost exclusively on Owen’s sexual high jinks—bedroom conquests so devoid of genuine emotional connection that they never lead Owen to greater self-knowledge or insight. As for the big public events of the day—like Vietnam, the rise of the counterculture, the women’s movement and the digital revolution—they are lazily relegated to listlike inserts or passing asides." Michiko Kakutani
"Remove the poetic porn … and you are left with lavish descriptions and an uninvolving plot. This is standard Updike: style overrules story."
Updike treads over familiar territory with Villages, his 21st novel. For those who crave more of his famed investigations into suburban sex and the male mind, this novel will prove a welcome addition to the canon. To some critics, however, Villages seemed a rehash of old material, with little to recommend it to modern audiences. Detractors found Owen’s sexual antics empty, his life devoid of emotional growth. Still, Updike remains one of the premier stylists of the English language, and he handles his subject with the assurance that comes from a lifetime of practice. Also, don’t forget the recently published collection by Updike: The Early Stories 1953-1975 Selection Mar/Apr 2004.