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Villages: A Novel [Paperback]

John Updike
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Sept. 27 2005
In this wry novel of sentimental education and sexual pursuit, we follow Owen Mackenzie, a representative man of the author’s generation, from cradle to grave, and from bed to bed. His life and relationships are shaped by three villages, warm-lit communities that keep the darkness at bay from within and without. In Willow, Pennsylvania, the young Owen is transfixed by his first glimpses of female beauty. In Middle Falls, Connecticut, he marries, becomes a first-wave computer programmer, and discovers the very grownup pleasures of serial adultery. Finally, married for a second time, he retires with his memories, illusions, and fantasies to the somewhat geriatric community of Haskells Crossing, Massachusetts. John Updike turns Owen’s personal odyssey into a radiant, sensual fable of the seasons of a man’s life—and of the getting of wisdom in America.

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From Publishers Weekly

In this 21st novel by one of the premier chroniclers of American life, a man recalls a lifetime spent in New England communities of women. Owen Mackenzie, now in his 70s and living in the small village of Haskell's Crossing, Conn., with his second wife, Julia, spends his days immersed in the daily routines of retirement while reminiscing about his childhood town of Willow, Pa., and the village where he spent his adulthood, Middle Falls, Conn. Though Owen studied at MIT and founded an early computer startup that made him moderately rich, his story is primarily defined by his romantic relationships. He marries his first wife, Phyllis, a classmate at MIT, for her cool beauty, but later decides that he needs a broader range of sexual experience. After a fraught first affair, he learns caution and is able to clandestinely indulge his love of women, until Julia, a minister's wife, comes along and convinces him to embark on a messy divorce and remarriage that indirectly results in Phyllis's accidental death. Owen's obsession with women's bodies and blithe ignorance of their inner lives can sometimes read like a tedious parody of Updike's earlier work, without a sense of humor to imply the author is in on the joke. Yet Updike still writes lovely sentences and creates a believable portrait of the American village, concealing dark secrets but providing a limited stability.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Seventy-year-old Owen Mackenzie does what people his age often do: he dwells on the past. For Owen, this means he obsessively recollects the places he's lived and how these locations functioned as settings for what the women in his life--his mother, two wives, and assorted lovers--gave him. He feels that these females are what provided life to his life, the material of his true existence, which, in this remembrance, he stretches like a canvas on the framework of the sequence of three villages he called home from childhood in the 1930s to late middle age in the present day. Born into poverty, Owen nevertheless considers himself lucky, which is essentially the point of--the catalyst for--this look back on an outwardly unextraordinary life. Interestingly, neither career nor fatherhood occupies his mind to much extent. As is usual for Updike, this novel is elegantly styled; however, it builds to a less than impressive whole. His lovely sentences are like intricate brickwork, but they ultimately do not add up to a real structure. Readers go with Owen down memory lane through all of his life moments without receiving any noticeable payoff, for his story fails to resonate on much more than a surface level. However, it is an Updike novel, so expect demand. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A beautiful story May 26 2005
Villages is the first John Updike book I have read so I can't compare it to his other titles. However, I loved it. John Updike is a great storyteller I shall start taking seriously. The story was a well constructed . I especially liked the Character development and like Owen, the main character the most. Like all stories set in a society in transition, innocence, ignorance, enlightenment, courage, evil, sex and goodness are all interwoven to make situations so exciting,. John Updike captured all of those in this novel. A highly recommended read.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.2 out of 5 stars  37 reviews
56 of 62 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Life of Owen Mackenzie as an American History Nov. 4 2004
By Grady Harp - Published on
John Updike has since the 1950s been the chronicler of the American mind. His twenty-one novels, poems, short stories, and essays have examined the American Dream and its vagaries, the inner and outer lives of the men and women living through the 20th century, the dichotomy between classes, ethics, sexual maturation, big business, politics as seen from both sides of the fence - name it and Updike has explored it. But John Updike also happens to be a gifted, eloquent wordsmith who can make small observations in a few words that become instantly branded on the brain as epiphanies. Reading Updike is a complete pleasure.

For those questioning whether this first man of letters has anything new to say, then VILLAGES is a must read. By the literary means of separating chronological 'biography' with evenly interspersed chapters that pause to explore the sexuality of the main character ("Village Sex I - VI") Updike's writing is refreshing and affords a better scrutiny of the life of a man as influenced by his gradual sexual awakening, underlining how those basic needs alter his movement through the stages from childhood through adolescence through adulthood to old age.

Owen Mackenzie was born during the Depression in Willow, Pennsylvania, (the first Village) a child of minimal means whose every discovery becomes a preparation for the Rake's Progress ahead. His introduction to the glories of the female body are bumpily naive and it is this 'frozen adolescence' the propels him through a marriage to a fellow student Phyllis) at MIT whom he marries and has four children, and upon graduation moves to Middle Falls, Connecticut where he slowly becomes a guru in the nascent computer industry. His various acts of adultery/affairs include a cornucopia of women of different types and values, and as his age and company and life in this village progress, he eventually must face his choices. He finally divorces Phyllis and marries another odd type (Julia, recently divorced from the town minister) only to end up in a retirement 'village' of Haskells Crossing, Massachusetts. A fairly simple story, and much in line with Updike's previous works.

The joy of this book is in the asides addressing issues few authors face head-on. "Capitalism...asks only one thing of us: that we consume. The stupider we are, the better consumers we are...You don't need to understand anything to watch television; they want you so stupid you keep staring at the commercials."

"A village is woven of secrets, of truths better left unstated, of houses with less window than opaque wall."

"Not for the rich the scattered wandering, the flight from ill-equipped nuclear family into America's wasteland of tawdry entertainments, of shopping-mall parking lots as large as lakes and seedy roadside bars advertising karaoke on Wednesday nights, of deserted downtowns and razed forests, of roving from job to job and mate to mate, amid such meagre electronic distractions as heist movies featuring car wrecks and fireballs and television comedies that reflect as in a fuzzy, fizzing mirror the awkward comedy of our desperate daily improvisations beyond the ordering principals of church, village, and family hierarchy...Only the rich - and not all of them, for some turn rebellious and others topple through self-neglect into lower castes - can afford the old structures that carry us from cradle to grave, well-fed, well-clothed, and well-respected."

"There are fewer and fewer somewheres in America, and more and more anywheres, strung out along the highways."

"It is a mad thing, to be alive. Villages exist to moderate this madness - to hide it from children, to bottle it for private use, to smooth its imperative into habits, to protect us from the darkness without and the darkness within."

The only summation of this book worthy of the writer is simply to encourage everyone to read it. An extraordinary journey is between these covers. Grady Harp, November 2004
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not among Updike's best Dec 9 2004
By S. Park - Published on
I picked up the volume after reading from somewhere that Updike had as his protagonist a programmer looking back to his life. Being an engineer myself, and acquainted with Updike's masterful hand in weaving American history with the lives of his characters, I couldn't but hold high expectations for the novel. I was to be disappointed, and not only for my own, inflated expectations.

It will be little exaggeration to state that the book is a sequence of sexual conquests made by our protagonist Owen Mackenzie in various "villages" (villages refer to suburbs the north eastern suburbs -- Connecticut, Massachusetts). After receiving his degree in EE from MIT, Owen marries Phyllis, a year older classmate, math major, proud, and a tad bit tepid. Owen in one of many house parties held his neighborhood gets tempted by his hostess, and after the abrupt end of the fling, manages to transform himself into a ladies' man. A dozen or so similar instances pursue. I patiently waited for that distinctively Updikean moment of poignancy. Such moment never arrived.

Updike's ability in associating everything -- animate or inanimate -- with some sort of sentiment is nothing short from astounding. It makes one feel as if those objects have memories of their own. For this very reason I found the novel worthwhile reading. But with little wisdom or insight from Owen to impart on us, these sexual experiences of his reduce to mere elements in a long, parallel sequence. Am I asking too much in expecting more from Updike?
27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ENJOYABLE READ OF TYPICAL UPDIKE Nov. 11 2004
By D. Blankenship - Published on
This was another nice work by Updike. I would be inclined to ignore the few shots Publishers Weekly made, they are usually a bit over the top and I have noted before, that they quite often miss the mark. This was a well constructed work. Character development was excellent. I suppose I enjoyed it more, as Owen, the main character, was close to my age and I could relate quite well to his bewilderment and reactions to different situations. This is a story set to the backdrop of America, during the times of our greatest change, to the early deveopement of computers and the cluelessness with which most men display when it comes to women. Sex is handled, per usual with Updike, quite well. All in all, it is well worth the read and I very much recommend it.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written. Intensely annoying. Sept. 16 2007
By Emil Fouchon - Published on
In Villages, John Updike has two messages for his male readers. 1) Unless you hurry up and start cheating on your wife, you will miss out on some great sex. 2) When you do commit adultery, don't feel too guilty about it; after all, sex is an overpowering force of nature that even the most well-educated and well-raised among us are utterly helpless to resist.

There may have been other messages that didn't leave much of an impression with me.

It took me a while to figure out why I disliked this book so much. There is, of course, nothing intrinsically wrong with doing a character study of a well-educated man whose main concern in life is to get the wives of other men to swallow his semen and who feels a little bit of guilt and quite a lot of pride about the hurt he brings to others. What is so grating about Villages, I think, is the sense--subtle but impossible to shake off even if you try--that Updike is entirely on Owen Mackenzie's side. That the book is, at its core, a paean to the forbidden ecstasy of adultery.

Updike knows perfectly well that readers are going to assume that Owen's values are the author's. So in order to distance himself a bit from his main character he devises a late, rather crude plot twist in which Owen's infidelity has fatal and tragic consequences. Voila, now the book is no longer a celebration of adultery but a moral debate with readers about it. Hmm...

Updike is sometimes accused of misogyny. Based on this book, I can't really agree. One thing seems clear, though: he has little interest in women who have little interest in sex. Don't be surprised, then, when Owen's wife Phyllis virtually disappears from the story for long stretches. Though sympathetically portrayed, she doesn't have the raw sex drive that would allow her to hold on to Updike's attention. It's a shame, really. I found her to be the most intriguing character in the book.

Updike's fascination with the mysteries of the female sex drive repeatedly distorts his judgment, at best driving him to paint a warped picture of womanhood, at worst causing him to stray into cheap pornographic fantasy made all the more jarring by the brilliant realism he achieves in his depiction of environments and settings.


I guess the key to reading Updike is to accept that he will not inspire you to become a better or happier person or give you any kind of fresh hope or appreciation for life. If you just focus on enjoying the lush, refined prose you might be all right.
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Computers and the Man-Woman Relationship. Nov. 4 2004
By John Matlock - Published on
A tale of computers and the sexes. Owen Mackenzie is retired from founding a successful computer company, and is living the past, reflecting on the women of his life and on women in general. Somewhat perplexed by the whole thing, he reflects that "perhaps it was a simple question of electrical engineering: in a world full of plugs, nature must provide sockets." As a computer type, I would have thought he would have seen it as programming. Giving two completely different programs, putting in the same data on a spreadsheet and a word processor yields entirely different results.

If you are familiar with John Updike's work, some fifty books that have won just about every award there is, you'll find that he hasn't lost his touch. If you are not familiar with him, this is a book of our time, and it's a good place to get hooked.
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