‘Waiting Up’ by John Updike

The first of The Maples Stories, ‘Snowing in Greenwich Village’ beds in two years after Joan and Richard’s wedding; in the last, ‘Grandparenting’, the pair await the birth of their daughter’s child at Hartford Hospital (“it was the Sunday of the Super Bowl and the announcers were revving up”) although upon reaching this final knot in the rope, we learn that Joan has remarried, the pair long since divorced. And in between these two bookends: sixteen more rich, rangy, gorgeous, brutal interludes delineating the bit-by-bit fragmentation of Joan and Richard’s suburban Boston lives.

My choice, ‘Waiting Up’, lifts off somewhere near the middle. Richard – in the throes of an affair with close family friend Mrs. Mason (“her shoulders caped in the morning sun coming through the window, the very filaments of her flesh on fire”) – is nervously awaiting his wife’s return from an evening of recrimination at the Masons’ home. When Joan does finally arrive, the dialogue – and the seamlessly achieved modulations of mood – are pitch perfect. Wry humour and cool analysis (“all year she’s been dancing up to me with this little impish arrogance I couldn’t understand”) replace what would have become a lazily dramatic scene in lesser hands. And Updike’s prose – that finely tuned instinct for when to hold back and when to let fly; the apparently effortless conjuring of a solid, palpable world, finely selected details resonating beyond their modest presences – always a thing to relish and behold.

First published in Your Lover Just Called, Penguin, 1980, and collected in The Maples Stories, Everyman’s Library, 2009

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