Marry Me, John Updike’s eighth novel, is a love story, a social comedy, and an attempt at a serious treatment of sex and religion. It is written in Updike’s usual luminous prose. Whether it is a successful novel is another question.
Jerry Conant and Sally Mathias are in love. Unfortunately, each is married to another person, and each has three children. They are having a passionate affair which involves sly telephone calls and secret rendezvous. To a certain extent, the joke is on them. Their respective spouses, Ruth Conant and Richard Mathias, have also had an affair, less serious, and now ended. This allows Updike to add a slight touch of irony to his story, the only effective use of irony in what seems to be at least partly a comedy of manners, but is also a novel told in a very earnest and straightforward manner. It also enables him to add a slightly different wrinkle to the, by now, in these times of the sexual revolution, overused situation of the two couples who are swapping partners. Updike does not avoid the cliché; he circles around it, and hackneyed situations and scenes are a part of the problems of this novel.
Jerry and Sally and Richard and Ruth live in a fictional Connecticut suburb called Greenwood. Like most of Updike’s characters, they are members of the upper middle class. Jerry, a failed freelance magazine cartoonist, is now a designer and animator of television commercials. Jerry is afflicted with two obsessions: a love for Sally and a fear of dying. He is a fundamentalist Lutheran with great concern for his salvation; and both his fear of death and his fight to hold onto his faith amid an adulterous affair, often give him psychosomatic asthma. He is given to reading serious theology, which does little to relieve his mind. An outwardly likable person, he is inwardly childish and self-centered. As such, and as the novel’s protagonist, he becomes another of its problems.
Ruth Conant, Jerry’s wife, is the most sensible and mature person of the quartet. A former artist, she has settled for the life of a suburban housewife after marrying Jerry. They met at art school, and by the time we meet them, a mutual interest in art and their children seems to be about all they have in common. Ruth is the most sympathetic of the four; she may be the true heroine of the novel, but she does not have enough spunk to gain control of the situation.
Richard Mathias is a well-to-do business entrepreneur. He is coarse, a grossly outgoing womanizer, and his atheism is an obvious thematic counterpoint to Jerry’s Christianity. About Sally Mathias there is little to say except that she is sexy, blonde, and almost wholly concerned with whatever makes Sally happy. Joanne, Jerry’s daughter, fully describes Sally when she tells her father that Mrs. Mathias never pays attention to anybody else.
For reasons that are not clear, Updike has chosen to subtitle his novel “A Romance.” Marry Me is not a romance in the usual sense of the term, but the exact opposite: a novel of everyday life with no heroic action which, with the exception of some soft-focused lovers’ sentimentality and a somewhat dream-like ending, is told in realistic detail. The story is set in 1962, during the idealistic, optimistic Kennedy “Camelot” period, and this is apparently part of the basis for calling it a romance. However, except for the fact that Jerry is involved in the drawing and production of a series of thirty-second television commercials for the government—animated propaganda pieces espousing the cause of democracy in underdeveloped countries—there is little reference to the time period. Concerned only with their two-family marriage crisis, Updike’s quartet shows no interest in the larger world about them. This indifference to other events, this almost total emphasis on the neurotic and emotional problems of four people, tends to give the novel an unfortunate and uncomfortable resemblance to daytime television drama. To the extent that this is a romance, it is a romance in the more mundane meaning of the term, as it is used in love-story movies and standard women’s magazine fiction.
The novel opens with Jerry and Sally having an idyllic tryst on a beach. Updike is setting up his religious symbolism from the beginning, with Jerry and Sally as Adam and Eve figures, for he has them imagine themselves as “. . . the original man and woman.”
But religion, for Jerry, is not symbolic at all; it is a reality. God and the prospect of heaven are very real to him, but this has done little to relieve his nagging fear of death. His inability to find stability in his religion has helped to lead him into a quest for solace in this...
(The entire section is 1929 words.)