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S. is an amusing book which is written as a series of letters sent by a woman called Sarah and it tells the story of how she left her rich life living on the east coast of America and her doctor husband in order to go and live on a religous commune with an Indiam mystic.
The first letter you get to read is the one she sent to her husband after she has left him explaining why she has taken the rather extreme change in direction that she has, it is filled with her admiration for her new guru and also some rather amtter of fact statements about how much of their joint savings she has kept and also why she left him.
Further letters follow to a host of recipients, some involve her explaining further her actions to other members of her family like her grown up daughter or her retired mother as well as writing to her fomer yoga colleagues which is obvioulsy the place where she forst heard of the cult that she joins. There are also more mundane letters to her dentist and also letters to other followers or people suing the cult, these later letters reflect the fact that she has moved up in the organisation.
Like most cults it is soon exposed as a crooked money making project with people getting high and enjoying free sex however it is a very funny way that the story is told and because of the style of a series of sometimes short and at other times long letters I found it a hard book to put down.
At times the humour incorporated into this book by it's author John Updike is rather subtle and certainly the whole plot is well constructed, Sarah is a wonderful main character, slightly mad at times she lurches across the emotional range and also has a rather hard nosed practical side to her which keeps the reader guessing as to her true motives.
This is a great book to read on holiday as it is not too heavy and the story moves along at a good pace and that is why I enjoyed it so much.
When I lived in London and before when I spent a couple of years travelling I came to the conclusion that I had one of those faces that looked gullible enough to mean that I would be prepared to join a cult. I got numerous unsolicited offers while on public transport or sitting in a cafe to attend meetings or parties in remote farms, sometimes by rather attractive young ladies and other times by those where the passion of the religious zealot burned brightly in their eyes. I have since joined a cult and every Friday I try to perform a random act of kindness but that is a different story.
This book is about one woman experience of joining a cult, the S in the title stands for Sarah who abandons her rich, comfortable east coast life as a doctor's wife to join a cult in the middle of the Arizona desert. Written by John Updike the book is a wonderfully subtle comedy that had me captivated from the very first pages mainly because I really did want to find out how the book ended and despite sussing out some of the main plot twists reasonably early on (not that a ten year old would not get them they are so obvious and hardly qualify as plot twists) there was a final twist that I did not exactly see coming which made the ending all the more satisfying.
The book is told through a series of letters penned by Sarah to a number of different people in her life and also connected to her work in the Ashram to which she joins, he a spiritual leader who has moved himself and his followers to the Arizona desert to create an agricultural commune based on Buddhist beliefs. As well as letters there are also some transcripts of tape recordings that Sarah makes to her best friend and former yoga colleague Midge, these tapes allow for the inclusion of conversations with the spiritual leader which she secretly records.
This is a clever piece of writing that is very entertaining, the opening letter is from Sarah to her husband Charles telling him of her flight, it is a letter where she seeks to explain her actions, it introduces the unhappiness she felt in what had become an empty marriage now that their only daughter Pearl was off at Yale and also her disgust at her husband's sexual liaisons with various nurses. It also reveals that Sarah is not totally spaced out in her quest for enlightenment as she details the fact that she has made sure financially she is secure by selling off shares and cashing in joint savings accounts as well as taking some antiques.
I like the way that this book is interspersed with quite meaningful and long letters and then you have a brief note to her dentist cancelling an appointment, in fact it is the very short letters that are often the most informative in this book especially letters to her bank. There are lots of subtle nuances in this book, in her letters Sarah communicates with her former psychiatrist, her daughter Pearl, her mother who has retired to Miami after the death of Sarah father, Midge her best friend and a number of other correspondents especially as she begins to rise in power within the community.
Whilst there are no absolute laughs out loud moments in the book it will have you smiling every so often and the ingenious way that Updike introduces such absurd concepts and the hypocrisy of the commune and those involved in it. Sure it does live up to some of the stereotypes you expect in such places, an exalted leader who likes expensive jewellery and limousines while asking that all those on the commune donate their worldly possessions and work long days as a form of worship, the whole thing is clearly shown as a money making exercise from the outset.
Sarah is a fascinating character and on whose shoulders the whole story is based, in her letters she shows a scattered brain approach to her writing, at once chastising her husband about his adultery and then instructing him on what needs to be done in the garden, similarly she lectures her mother on not squandering her father's wealth and then warmly advises her on the importance of vitamins. It would be easy to dismiss her character as one who is having a mid life crises of epic proportions however that would be far too simplistic and she repeatedly demonstrates an awareness of what is going on around her even while using the convoluted language of the converted. The letters are as much about what is not said but implied as opposed to what is actually written, subtle little flags are raised by Updike with regards to her true meanings, the way she signs off a letter is a good indicator of her true feelings.
The back of the book contains a glossary of key terms, I have no idea whether the Buddhist terms used in the book are at all accurate or just a figment of Mr Updike's imagination or maybe a combination of the two, either way it is an impressive bit of writing to include such a range of terms in it and somehow this just helps with the overall comic feel of the thing especially when such terms are used in reply to the letter from Charles' solicitors, as a reader it creates a picture in your mind of the recipient reading the letter with eyes bulging at the inane psycho babble on the page. In fact that is one of the pleasures of this book as you the reader put yourselves into the position of the letters recipient.
I would have no hesitation in recommending this book as it is an innovative and enjoyable read. I got my copy in a swap on readitswapit and it is the hard back copy which retails at £10.95 and is published by Andre Deutsch. The paperback version can be bought on Amazon for £4.46 new or from £2.67 in the new and used section. Excluding the glossary the book runs to 230 pages and the ISBN is 0-233-98255-8.
Thanks for reading and rating my review.