Thursday, March 5, 2009

In the Beauty of the Lilies

In the Beauty of the Lilies is the first book by John Updike that I have read. It is an incredibly ambitious novel, spanning four generations and 80 years in the life of an American family that is largely defined by their relationships with God and the movies. I enjoyed the book for the most part, and I am glad that I have read it, but there were definitely times that I found it to be a bit tedious.

The book is divided into four sections of roughly equal length, each focusing on a member of the Wilmot family. We open in Patterson, NJ in 1910 with the story of Clarence, a Presbyterian minister who literally loses his religion in a moment of clarity. Believing himself unable to continue his ministry, he leaves the church, dragging the social status and finances of his family irreversibly down. He becomes a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, which he does poorly, and he can only find solace within the doors of the local movie house. After his death, his wife and his three children are forced to move in with his sister, who lives in a small town in Delaware.

Teddy, the youngest of Clarence's children, seems to me to be the closest thing the book has to a "hero." Unlike his older siblings, he is rather unambitious and generally stays out of trouble. He works at the soda fountain in the town's drug store, where he meets shy Emily, a new girl in town with a deformed foot. His mother and aunt aren't fond of the match, so they encourage Teddy to join his siblings - his wild older brother Jared, his flapper sister Esther, and Jared's wife Lucille (a bootlegger's daughter) - in New York. Jared's shady business dealings aren't for Teddy, and his moment of clarity drives him to return to little Basingstoke and propose to his sweet Emily. Between the job he lands as a postman and his lovely marriage to Emily, he has everything in life he could possibly want. The birth of their daughter Essie, and their increasingly close relationship with Teddy's mother and Emily's parents, only sweeten life for Teddy.

Essie, on the other hand, is an adored little girl with grand ambitions of becoming a star. She considers her charmed childhood to be absolutely perfect, though she feels destined to be more. Through a series of smart moves beginning during her high school years, she ultimately lands herself a Hollywood studio contract. Now known as Alma DeMott, she leads a fast, successful movie star's life, with marriages and men to spare.

Alma's son Clark is definitely not her priority, and he never quite manages to find direction in his drug-hazed life. His drifting finds him in Colorado in the mid-1980s (when he's in his mid-20s), working for Jared at a ski resort. A chance meeting in the lodge leads to his riding home with a girl from a Branch Davidian-esque cult. The cult fills a void in Clark's life, partly because their seclusion renders them ignorant of his famous mother, and re-christened as Esau, he quickly becomes indoctrinated.

I thought the book was strongest during the Teddy section. His story was an interesting contrast to that of his siblings, and it was consumed with neither film nor God. I suppose that is why he was the only member of the family who lived the status quo - all others were either made great or destroyed by God or the movies. The contrast of these two American cultural institutions was interesting, but felt somewhat unnatural. While In the Beauty of the Lilies provides a glimpse into the distinguished "man of letters" that was Updike, it's not the most enjoyable book I've read. I'll probably attempt Rabbit, Run, and see if I find other Updike to be more appealing.

Next up for me: Sula by Toni Morrison. I'll tell you tomorrow what the Fearless Readers are tackling next.

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