John Updike
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994
ISBN # 0-679-43071-7
260 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
February 2009

A handsome young black thief sees a stunningly beautiful wealthy white girl on the famous Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro and falls immediately in love. He approaches her and gives her a lovely ring he had stolen from a tourist. It is love at first sight. Thus begins the passionate, tragic and very strange love affair between Tristao and Isabel.

Once their love affair becomes known to Isabel’s uncle, he discourages it, but sort of accepts it as a youthful fling. However, it goes further and she runs away to be with Tristao, moving into the terrible slum where he lives with his prostitute mother and a parcel of children, all by different fathers. Isabel’s father intervenes and sends thugs to bring Isabel back home, threatening the lives of Tristao and his family if she tries to run away.

However, she is willing to risk it and thus begins the strange, even crazy journey of this passionate couple.

The novel addresses the question of race with a vengeance. Tristao is dark black and Isabel almost unnaturally white. In Brazil and much of the western world, black is related to poverty and exploitation, white to wealth and privilege. There is sort of a competition of tradition and social justice that enters into this clash between the lovers and her family and their tradition.

There is a bit more I want to say about the novel, however, it will involve “spoilers,” details that might well lessen the pleasure of reading the novel for those who haven’t read it. If you haven’t read it and think you might, then I would suggest you skip the section at the end marked SPOILERS.

If you are going to do so, I would just sum up my overview of the novel by saying it has lots of interest in it. A tragic, passionate and explicit love affair, a strong clash of the races in society, and then wild adventures in the Amazon jungles and even in a mountainous area of gold mining. While Updike is excellent in telling the love story and challenging in dealing with the question of race, he does venture into some imitation of South American magical realism and I think he does this very poorly.

Overall, it was a decent read, not great. He posed some interesting problems, but I wasn’t very satisfied with the role of his version of magical realism to advance his plot.

However, the love story itself was refreshing and quite explicit without being prurient. The novel is worth a read, but not what I was expecting of John Updike.

I have been very attracted to the South American school of magical realism and read and reviewed quite a few works in this book review section of my web page. I have reviews of works by Alejo Carpentier, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Varga Llosa and Jose Luis Borges – at least. There are probably others whose names are slipping my mind. But, in Updike’s version it just didn’t work for me. The use of the magic realism just didn’t seem to fit into the cultural pattern of the people, as it did in the other writers, but just seemed silly and fantastic.

However, despite my disappointment with the magical realism part of the novel, I do think he did some interesting work in bringing to the reader’s attention the power of color in the Brazilian society of that time, and the terrible damage it did to so many people’s lives.

This was my very first read of an Updike novel. When he died a week or so ago there was much about him in the newspapers, on radio and TV. I realized I hadn’t read him, but did have this one novel on my book shelves. I pulled it out to read.

I do recall that in all the stories about Updike upon his death, much was mentioned about his “Rabbit” series and I don’t recall the Brazil novel being mentioned. Perhaps I just chose poorly for my first Updike read.

It wasn’t an unpleasant read; by no means. However, if it hadn’t been for all the hype about him after his death, and had I just by chance decided to read this novel my comments might have been even a bit less favorable.

SPOILERS -------- SPOILERS --------- SPOILERS ---------- SPOILERS

There is a part of me that certainly respects John Updike’s attempt to try writing a portion of this novel in the mode of magical realism. Additionally, even before the magical realism sets in, there is the disappointing excessive “luck” when Tristao finds the large gold nugget in mining. Then, when they run from the mine and head on the long journey through the remote forests of Brazil and the magical realism comes to play, I was sorely disappointed. His mode of handling the white group he stumbles on, who are even using weapons of the 16th century, and the crazy act of the magical healer who changes their skin color – that was all just too much for me.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett