Saturday, December 24, 2005


From the Vault: In the Beauty of the Lilies by John Updike

Of all the great reading experiences of my life, the best was when I read John Updike's first three Rabbit novels over the course of two weeks.

The novels, which were written and set roughly 10 years apart, not only traced the life of Harry Angstrom but gave the reader a fascinating glimpse into the growth of Updike's talent. Rabbit Redux showed more of Updike's prose wizardry than its predecessor and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Is Rich took Updike to an even higher level. The final novel, Rabbit at Rest, also won the Pulitzer when it came later. While it was among Updike's best works, it seemed to me his skills had plateaued since Rabbit Is Rich. This shouldn't have been unexpected — after all, Updike has been a writer all of his adult life and was 58 when the last Rabbit was published. Why shouldn't he have reached a peak?

Leave it to Updike to prove me wrong with his latest novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, another great leap forward for the author that deserves its place among his very best.

Not bad for someone in his 64th year to still be learning new tricks. In the Beauty of the Lilies, which takes its title from a verse of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," spans 80 years in the lives of the Wilmot family.

It begins their tale with Presbyterian minister Clarence Wilmot in Paterson, N.J., before spinning through the lives of his son Teddy, Teddy's daughter Essie and, finally, Essie's son Clark, who brings the novel up to 1990.

Though certainly smaller in scope and focus and more conventional, in a way it reminded me of John dos Passos' USA trilogy. Like the Rabbit novels, which highlighted significant events occurring in the same era, Lilies glances past much of history and culture in the 20th century.

Four sections divide the novel, each focusing on one of the principal characters. They almost are like interconnected novellas, but they hold together as a single work, even when their structure changes from the straight-forward slices of life — Clarence's loss of faith and Teddy's desire to get through life with as few mental wounds as possible — that launch the book.

While the first half is good, Lilies really takes off in the third section about Essie, the minister's granddaughter who becomes a movie star. In a mere 133 pages, Updike manages to condense Essie's growth from a precious 7-year-old who always got "excited when it rained, as if God was touching her somehow," to the tired actress with a neglected son she becomes. Updike manages to draw her character's life convincingly and vividly in fewer pages than any single book of the Rabbit series.

The fourth section changes form again, as it bounces between a present setting and flashbacks to paint a portrait of Clark's troubled life, which takes the young man into a Branch Davidian-type cult compound. The novel's multitudinous themes are best left for the reader to discover and ponder, though the main thrust concerns the battle between culture, mass media and religion. In a way, it shows that the more the universe expands, the smaller and less important human and spiritual connections become.

While Updike seemed to me to stumble with his last two novels, Memories of the Ford Administration and Brazil, he's never exerted more control of his powers than he does here. His prose is as stunning as always, but the story doesn't suffer in this one and it may well be his finest work as well as his most compulsive page turner.

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