|John Updike: Brazil|
Books (Trade Paperback), ISBN 0449911632
When Tristao, a young, black slum-dweller, sees Isabel, a wealthy, ghostly pale blonde, on the beaches of Rio they connect instantly. Tristao gives Isabel a ring he stole from a tourist. That afternoon, Isabel gives him her virginity. This unlikely beginning marks the start of what Updike repeatedly refers to as fate or destiny.
Isabel and Tristao possess the depth of paper dolls. Their primary concern is sex, sex, sex. Their reactions to the barriers of race, class and background could provide interesting insight into their personalities. But Updike minimally probes these issues, leaving us to wonder what motivates them to defy such rigid lines at what becomes a very steep cost.
Instead, he focuses on how family members and other peripheral characters react to their relationship. These individuals reinforce social norms, but Updike never sufficiently explores what initiates and supports their prejudices.
Starting with a union just barely plausible, the reader follows the couple into even less likely situations. We must try to believe such far out situations as Isabel, the daughter of a high-ranking politician, working as a prostitute in a gold mining camp, yet continuing to swear her deep love and happiness.
One of the most disappointing features of the book is the negative light in which Updike portrays women. A drunken whore gave birth to Tristao. Updike characterizes Isabel's late mother as "the kind of woman who was good for nothing but to lie around in a harem." Isabel herself gives up her education without question and relinquishes any focus or goal in life other than to be with Tristao and to satisfy her sexual desires. Her adventures include forays into prostitution, homosexuality, even spending two years as someone's third wife -- a man she addresses as "lord."
Even worse, Isabel asks Tristao to beat her but continues her proclamations of love after being beaten. The only strong women, two native Indians, become murder victims, sending the message that strength and knowledge doesn't get women far.
Much of the dialogue, like the relationships, comes across as forced and stiff. "..[M]y work is very interesting," Tristao says to Isabel, after entering the world of the powerful elite. "It deals with men -- men and women, of course I mean, though women with corporate power are still rare -- who must be brought into a singleness of purpose, to make a future world." While the reader may not know that few corporate women exist in Brazil, Isabel, as a native Brazilian, should know this. Updike's attempts to transmit such facts through dialogue ring false.
Brazil offers historical background and wonderful landscape descriptions for those interested in the country. For those looking for a compelling story, this book fails to meet the mark.
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