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S Hardcover – February 12, 1988

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The eponymous S. is Sarah Worth, Boston bred, upper-class WASP, and when we meet her in this epistolary narrative, she is on an airplane, writing to tell her doctor husband she is leaving him to join her guru on an Arizona religious commune. In a whimsical twist, Updike makes Sarah a Hawthornian counterpart to Roger in Roger's Version: one of her ancestors was a Prynne; her daughter's name is Pearl. Through letters to members of her family, her hairdresser and dentist, and through tapes sent to her best friend Midge, Sarah relates the circumstances that prompted her to leave domineering, philandering Charles and to seek communion with the Arhat and his band of sannyasins (pilgrims) on the ashram. Willfully blind to the totalitarian methods of the Arhat's flunkies, Sarah reports her spiritual rebirth at the same time she records abysmal living conditions and brutal physical and financial exploitation. She mimes the Arhat's preachy nonsense that frees her ego for "nothingness" and her body for love affairs both heterosexual and lesbian. Eventually she is "chosen" by the Arhat himself; bitter disillusionment follows. Like all of Updike's work, the narrative is a commentary on our culture. Sometimes bordering on farce, it is often wickedly funny, especially when Sarah employs her sharp tongue to lecture her mother and daughter or write mendacious letters to the desperate people the Arhat has cheated. Updike is in his most playful mode here; and if Sarah is too much of a ninny to elicit the reader's sympathy, she is a wonderful embodiment of self-delusion and feminism run amok. 100,000 first printing; BOMC main selection.
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Described as Updike's retelling of The Scarlet Letter from Hester's point of view, S . follows middle-aged doctor's wife Sarah Worth as she leaves her stifling security for life on a desert commune with a Bhagwan-like religious leader named Arhat. Through letters back home, Sarah tells of her growing importance in the commune and her growing self-consciousness. As the commune's internal order begins to break down under pressure from local officials and federal immigration authorities, Sarah becomes more intimate with Arhat, struggling to reconcile old values with new realities. While a far shot from Hawthorne, Sarah's story is sprightly, full of humor, and well told. This follow-up to Roger's Version ( LJ 9/1/86), also based on The Scarlet Letter, is recommended for most fiction collections. Ann H. Fisher, Radford P.L., Va.
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf; 1st edition (February 12, 1988)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0394568354
  • ISBN-13: 978-0394568355
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.1 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,036,540 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

John Updike was born in 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954, and spent a year in Oxford, England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of The New Yorker, and since 1957 lived in Massachusetts. He was the father of four children and the author of more than fifty books, including collections of short stories, poems, essays, and criticism. His novels won the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Rosenthal Award, and the Howells Medal. A previous collection of essays, Hugging the Shore, received the 1983 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. John Updike died on January 27, 2009, at the age of 76.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 20, 2000
Format: Paperback
I was very impressed by Updike's ability to create characters that are wholly believable, and to craft a story that is hard to put down -- I read this in a couple of days, and enjoyed it. The protagonist, Sarah, sounds very much like any number of people I've met, down to the fine details -- a difficult stunt to sustain over the length of a novel that is essentially her dictation. And, to be sure, the book is funny, as many have claimed. It is also rather mean spirited, however.

Sarah leaves her husband for a "spiritual" commune or ashram, which Updike modeled on the one established in the 70's by Bhagavan Shri Rajneesh in Oregon. Having lived in a community that bears much similarity to the one portrayed, I can vouche for the accuracy (greatly exaggerated, of course) of the likeness. But although my own experience was no less disappointing than Sarah's, I would have liked to have thought that a writer of Updike's ability and insight would not stoop to getting the usual belly laughs at the expense of all those who have tried to find spiritual growth through Eastern traditions. He seems to have steeped himself deeply in the language and philosophy of Buddhism and Hinduism, but only to lampoon those who are drawn to them. His portrayal is clever, and certainly captures the worst aspects of such endeavors, but it veers towards the most cynical view imaginable -- that those who pursue such traditions and lifestyles are viciously greedy, self-indulgent frauds, and those who steer clear of them to pursue the stock market or whatever are far wiser souls. If you want to wallow in that perspective, this book's for you.

Updike's portrayal of Sarah herself is similarly tainted.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By D. P. Birkett on August 14, 2003
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Updike has this amazing ability to turn his hand to anything. There is no distinct Updike style you could ever parody. He just writes amazingly well. He can put himself inside the skin of anyone of of any ethnicity or sex. His tone rends to be satirical but he can be profound. This is one of his most undiluted attempts at out and out comedy.
It is written from the point of view of a very WASP New England lady (one of her ancestors is a Prynne, and her daughter is called Pearl) who deserts her adulterous doctor husband to join a Hindu or Buddhist (I was never quite sure which) commune in Arizona.It's written in the form of the letters and tapes she sends to correspodents back East (her dentist, hairdresser, husband, psychotherapist, daughter,best friend, lawyer, hairdresser's jailed son etc).
She starts off as a naive dupe, but by the end has oth cleverly outsmarted everyone who tried to rip her off and achieved the spiritual development she sought from the fraudulent guru.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Tom Adair on November 30, 2000
Format: Paperback
Ever since Rabbit, Run, Updike has been attracted to the idea of writing a story that feels as if it is actually happening while it is being read - rather than, as is almost inherent in the form of the novel, communicating an impression of recorded history. By way of attempting to put the idea into practice, Updike has both experimented with present-tense narration (see Leaf Season in Trust Me) and - in S. - given us his take on the venerable (if not antiquated) genre of the epistolary novel. From this point of view the fact that S. is made up solely of letters is an attractive feature of the book: one's sense of anticipation (how will events unfold?) is indeed sharpened. What makes the epistolary form work in this novel is the naturally loquacious and confiding disposition of the protagonist and author of the letters, Sarah Worth (or 'S' as she signs herself to her husband).
Sarah has in fact left her husband and gone to join a religious commune in Arizona. Through her dispatches to various friends, family and acquaintances we follow the fortunes of the community and her role within it through to its surprising (?) conclusion.
The novel has been criticised for its satirical presentation of Buddhism, yoga, etc. in the context of commune life. I'm not sure Updike would accept the charge. In fact I found quite a lot of fair-mindedness in the book - it actually left me with an improved rather than diminished opinion of what Eastern ideas are actually aspiring to - although I don't think Updike can excuse himself from drawing on certain stereotypes. But this is essentially a light, comic novel - although I don't see why it necessarily had to be - and probably shouldn't be taken too seriously.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By erica on December 23, 2002
Format: Paperback
S. is the story of Sarah Worth, a New England matron who flees the confines of midcentury feminine affluence to seek spiritual (and sexual) enlightenment in a religious commune. She chronicles her adventure in letters to her best friend, daughter, and estranged husband, as well as short notes to her former dentist and hairdresser, tapes of conversations with the commune's leader, and a selection of the letters she writes on behalf of the commune's business office. The story unfolds briskly and subtely, with Updike employing his satirical skill to show a woman who, in leaving her life behind, manages to take it all with her.
A benefit of the letter format is that it allows a full exploration of the narrator's voice, to excellent effect. It also suppresses Updike's tendency to rely too heavily on his (excellent) descriptive language and instroduces an element of suspense that makes the story quite absorbing.
S. has been criticized by other reviewers for its perceived mockery of Eastern religions, but I don't think this is intended. Updike has obviously done extensive research - if not into Eastern religions themselves, then at least into their Western offshoots - and presents the characters with what, for him, is considerable sympathy. Of course he mocks the narrator's blind devotion to the commune - that's part of what the book is about - but he's mocking the misdirection of her efforts, not the ideals to which she aspires.
The one element of the book that frustrated me was Updike's treatment of his narrator. Sure, it's fun to read a book about an arrogant and slightly hysterical woman who is always just slightly out of her league - a Bridget Jones for our mothers' generation.
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