You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Month of Sundays

With the recent passing of John Updike I realized that I'd never read anything he wrote. I hope to soon start his Rabbit series, but when I was at the library a couple of months ago I picked up a copy of A Month of Sundays. The setup for this novel is that Tom Marshfield, an Episcopal priest, is visiting a sort of rehab center that specializes in wayward clergy. He spends his mornings writing and his afternoons playing golf. Each chapter is another days worth of writing.

Tom has been sent away because he has been cheating on his wife and having sexual relations with his parishioners. He is obsessed with his girlfriend Alicia, the organist in the church. He has gone so far as to arrange for his assistant Ned to spend more time with his wife. However, he is dismayed to discover that Ned and Alicia are sleeping together. Alicia tells Tom's wife about the affair, in a attempt to force Tom to make a decision to leave his wife or stop sleeping with Alicia. Tom's visit to the center is precipitated when he tells Alicia she is fired and she goes to the church deacons and tells them about Tom's affairs.

Tom's fascination with Alicia is mirrored by his strange attraction to Frankie, the wife of one of the church leaders. Frankie tries to seduce him, but his image of her as a pure woman keeps him from fulfilling his desire for her. She refuses to renounce her faith for him so that he may get properly aroused. It seems to indicate that deep down he knows what he is doing is wrong and is damaging to his faith and his congregation as well as his marriage. In fact, he seems largely oblivious to the havoc he is causing, not even understanding why firing Alicia is a bad idea when his wife and Ned try to talk him out of it.

Updike is a master of language. The whole book is filled with plays on words and linguistic games. The narrator Tom will bring attention to Freudian slips of the finger as he types. He delights in body parts of his lovers, and even delights in his wife after the affair is revealed. His prose is poetic, and it brings attention to Tom's misplaced fervor for other woman over his own or his calling.

The novel ends on an ambiguous note, as he begins writing to the nurse or caretaker at the facility, Ms. Prynne, whom he imagines is reading his words and hoping to be seduced by him. When this doesn't happen he turns bitter, and when he leaves the facility he seems to accept his punishment for his transgressions, but doesn't appear truly regretful. The story can be seen as a celebration and a condemnation of infidelity. Certainly most of the language takes joy in forbidden fruit. However as a character Tom is quite shallow; though we can understand his cold feelings toward his cold wife, he is also distant to his two teenage sons, who seem to have no part in his life. Though the book is fun to read, at the ends it leaves one just a bit hollow, like all of Tom's sexual pursuits don't amount to much. B+


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