A graceful panoramic depiction of individuals and their communities, which simultaneously echoes Updike’s 1968 novel, Couples, and may be as autobiographical a fiction as any he’s written.
The protagonist and viewpoint character is 70-year-old retiree Owen Mackenzie, who is stimulated by recurring, troubling dreams to recall experiences in the three “villages” where he’s spent most of his life: Willow, Pennsylvania, where Owen, sheltered and indulged by cautious parents, develops “his charmed, only-child sense of life”; Middle Falls, Connecticut, where Owen and his first wife Phyllis produce their four children while he builds the innovative computer software business that will make him rich; and Haskells Crossing in eastern Massachusetts (read: Updike’s longtime hometown of Ipswich), where he resides with second wife Julia, a former clergyman’s spouse acquired during the last of Owen’s numerous courses of adultery. The best parts of Villages are its early chapters, packed with delicately detailed observations of landscapes, interiors, and emotional states and felicitous sentences. By the time Owen undertakes his “practical scientific education” at M.I.T. and becomes involved with brainy, beautiful fellow student Phyllis Goodhue, Updike—ever the assiduous master of information pertaining to his characters’ livelihoods—has provided a really rather impressive crash course in the history and programming of computers. But then Owen begins his serial dalliances with (mostly married) neighbors and acquaintances, and the novel segues into the vigorous clinical sexual specificity that Updike (a) does better than almost anybody else now writing and (b) overdoes to an extent that blemishes even his best fiction. The story recovers somewhat toward its end, as Owen’s approaching death bestows a needed gravitas upon his compulsive egotism (about which, to be fair, Updike is unsparingly frank).
Prototypical Updike: made new here and there by his ever-enviable novelistic skills, but marred by its more than passing resemblance to books that he’s written too many times already.