Wednesday, October 7, 2009

In the Beauty of the Lilies by John Updike

I don't know why, but today, all of the sudden, I have the compulsion to review In the Beauty of the Lilies by John Updike. It was my book group's pick for July, and I did manage to finish all 491 pages of it in time for the meeting, though I can't say that I had all that much to contribute to the discussion. Since then, it's been lying on my bedroom floor unreviewed, alone, and abandoned.

In the Beauty of the Lilies is Updike's treatise on religion and American culture masked by the saga of several generations of the Wilmot family and wrapped up in the growing movie industry. The book has only four chapters, each one focused on the a member of each generation. To start, in 1910, we meet Clarence Wilmot, a Presbyterian minister who finds that his faith has suddenly abandoned him. Even as he tries to seek out God and look for Him where he has found Him in the past, he is most assured that the God to whom he looked for his whole life's needs and his livelihood does not exist, has never existed. Unable to so much as preach a sermon, he soon finds himself relegated to selling subpar encyclopedias door to door, even to his former servant, in an effort to support his family even as his very life seems to ebb and his only refuge becomes the movie theatre.

Where Clarence leaves off, his son Teddy begins. Teddy is an insecure boy without goals who grows to be an underachieving man uncertain of his place in world and petrified at the thought of one day becoming a "rube." What he doesn't realize is that, "rube"-hood seems to be what life has in store for him. Forever impacted by his father's loss of faith and slow descent into death, Teddy has no time for God, and yet his story is perhaps the sweetest. When he marries his wife, a cripple, they have a child, Esther, Essie for short, who he and his wife shower with all the love they have to give which is no benefit to her. Secure in herself and confident that nothing will be denied her, Essie leaves her Wilmot name behind to pursue a career in the movies as the very famous Alma DeMott. Forever having love affairs and caring only about advancing herself at the expense of others, Alma believes that God exists and cares only for her selfish needs. Self-centered as she is, Alma makes a terrible mother to her son Clark who, in a desperate attempt to assert himself and do something meaningful after a meaningless, shallow childhood, joins a religious cult. It is with Clark that the Wilmot saga comes full circle until the thing that seemed to capsize the Wilmot family will be the very thing to heal it.

In the Beauty of the Lilies is a most complicated book. One can't help but feel that Updike is trying to accomplish many things with this narrative, and yet, by the end, trying to grasp his many meanings is an epic chore, and without this meaning, In the Beauty of the Lilies leaves a sour taste in your mouth. After so much depression and strife in the lives of the Wilmot family members, readers desperately desire more hope for them, and for us, than Updike seems to have to offer. Updike writes in long, dense paragraphs, and the lack of many chapter breaks in the book seem to make it that much longer and denser.

Many of Updike's characters are terribly difficult to sympathize with, but each is well-drawn with his or her motives and actions and flaws explored to their deepest extent. The writing is beautifully crafted and full of captivating descriptions and turns of phrase that can be both impossibly witty and wildly ironic. There's no doubt that Updike is a master of his craft as he expertly weaves together his saga of a struggling American family set against a backdrop of a centuries old faith that provided a foundation for our nation and Hollywood films that create an impossible and unrealistic standard of American life that have shaped our nation's psyche in ways that even we fail to realize. Updike uses Hollywood both to pace his story through the decades and to reveal an American people obsessed with stars and the idealized version of reality they project even as they abandon the Christian ideals that once grounded them and enabled them to endure the hardships of everyday life.

In the Beauty of the Lilies is not a book that I would recommend to the casual reader. It is not a happy, pleasant book. It requires a good deal of work to understand and even then leaves a lot of ambiguity that the reader must resolve. It's a book that definitely benefits from a group discussion and a careful eye as to what Updike has done. It's a book that I would be hard pressed to say that I liked, but all the same, it's a vivid story of realistic people that lodges itself in the memory, so much so, that now, months later, I'm writing this and barely needing to consult it. Perhaps it is destined to be a sort of classic and in it, Updike has revealed bits and pieces of what the critics claim is his "genius," but as for you and me, we'll probably be lucky to understand even half of it.

Did any of you fine readers ever read this one? If so, I'd love to hear what you took away from it!

If you haven't, have you ever read a book that you thought must be incredibly profound if only you could understand it the way it was meant? Or am I alone out here? ;-)


  1. I've never read this one, but have wanted to. It's been on my list for a long while.

    You did an amazing review of this work. It seems like one of those that will be very individual, and opinions will vary. Thanks

  2. Diane - I hope you do read it, I'd love to hear your take on it. It was really different for me because I found that I really appreciated many of the book's parts, but as a whole I had a hard time with it.

  3. You know, I have to say that I can honestly see the potential in this book, I'm the wrong reader for it. Which sort of makes me sad. I wish I was one of those people who has the patience and insight for this type of read, because I'm sure I truly miss out sometimes.

    Anyway, Megan, can I just say that your review was so fabulous, that you had me tempted to add a book to my wish list that I knew I wouldn't actually ever read?

  4. I haven't read anything by Updike, but I think I have one of his books on my TBR shelf. I'm not sure which one. How awful is that?

    This does sound like a complex book. One that would take a lot of work--at least for me.

    As to your question, the title that popped immediately into my mind was Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. I really feel as if I didn't get what I was supposed to out of that book, like I was missing some important piece. I don't know if that's exactly what you meant, but it's the first thing that came to mind.