The Women Who Got Away by John Updike


As a non-English/Lit grad doing MA, and one who doesn’t read classics, I am lost whenever my lecturer, DW, throws out authors’ names, almost none of whom I have heard of. I can try to catch up but with the amount of reading, that’s near impossible.

My author ignorance is also exacerbated by the course text I am reading, How Fiction Works by James Wood, where he gives examples of what good writing is by these same classic authors, like John Updike, Stephen Heath, Tolstoy, Stendhal, etc. Shakespear is quoted a lot but alas I have only read Julius Caesar in school, likewise for Vanity Fair by  William Makepeace Thackeray. Wood points out why these are great authors, for other than plots, their stylistic use of metaphors and languages is what all writers should learn from.


In my despair trying to search for these authors, I chanced upon this collection of books I purchased long ago, hoping that I would actually get to read it. Scanning through, I found a few of the esteemed authors. And what luck, these books are thin!


So the first book I extracted from the box of Great Loves is a short story collection by John Updike. The five stories inside share a common theme – adultery. Plots aside, I try to read as a writer and not a reader (really, how much plot can an adulterous relationship have, although the last story, Transaction, gives an insightful account of a man on his first transaction with a prostitute, complete with the awkwardness and sexually explicit acts, except it’s written in what I think Wood would approve as metaphorical description rather than what I am more accustomed to in erotic  or historical romances.)

So, like an editor, I underline metaphors, similes, details as I read, and I am wowed.

  • He skimmed the array of condoms, displayed, in this progressive AIDS -wary age, like a rack of many-coloured candies, each showing on the box a shadowy man and woman bending their heads conspiratorially close.
  • Infidelity, he reflected, widens a couple’s erotic field at first, but leaves it weaker and frazzled in the end.
  • Our whispers of farewell still hissed in my ears, her last kiss evaporating under my nose. My whole body felt as defenseless as a slug’s.
  • …cells of subversion would pop up in his wake like dandelions on an April lawn.
  • …the stewardesses were as hefty as packed suitcases.
  • …her warm black eyes darted back and forth around my face like stirred-up horseflies.
  • …by the time the reception was breaking up the whole scene might have been a picture printed ion silk,  waving gently in and out. (Drunk)
  • Tiny stars of ice clotted on my own lashes as I kissed our guest good night, square in my mouth by lightly, lightly, with liquor-glazed subtleties of courteous regret.
  • Pierce Junction was a town of secrets that kept leaking out, lie sawdust from a termite-ridden beam.
  • Behind the main desk, men murmured into telephones and transposed coded numerals with the muffled authority of Houston manipulating a spacecraft.
  • As the outdoor cold melted out of his body, the alcohol blossomed into silliness, foaming out of him like popcorn from a popper.
  • He let his towel drop and held her, with no more pressure than causes a stamp to adhere to an envelope.

Truly, one has to read classics like this to write literally fiction. Don’t you agree?


About vickychong

Just an ordinary woman.
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