The eponymous S. is Sarah Worth, Boston bred, upper-class WASP, and when we meet her in this epistolary narrative, she is on an airplane, writing to tell her doctor husband she is leaving him to join her guru on an Arizona religious commune. In a whimsical twist, Updike makes Sarah a Hawthornian counterpart to Roger in Roger's Version: one of her ancestors was a Prynne; her daughter's name is Pearl. Through letters to members of her family, her hairdresser and dentist, and through tapes sent to her best friend Midge, Sarah relates the circumstances that prompted her to leave domineering, philandering Charles and to seek communion with the Arhat and his band of sannyasins (pilgrims) on the ashram. Willfully blind to the totalitarian methods of the Arhat's flunkies, Sarah reports her spiritual rebirth at the same time she records abysmal living conditions and brutal physical and financial exploitation. She mimes the Arhat's preachy nonsense that frees her ego for ``nothingness'' and her body for love affairs both heterosexual and lesbian. Eventually she is ``chosen'' by the Arhat himself; bitter disillusionment follows. Like all of Updike's work, the narrative is a commentary on our culture. Sometimes bordering on farce, it is often wickedly funny, especially when Sarah employs her sharp tongue to lecture her mother and daughter or write mendacious letters to the desperate people the Arhat has cheated. Updike is in his most playful mode here; and if Sarah is too much of a ninny to elicit the reader's sympathy, she is a wonderful embodiment of self-delusion and feminism run amok. 100,000 first printing; BOMC main selection. (March)
Described as Updike's retelling of The Scarlet Letter from Hester's point of view, S . follows middle-aged doctor's wife Sarah Worth as she leaves her stifling security for life on a desert commune with a Bhagwan-like religious leader named Arhat. Through letters back home, Sarah tells of her growing importance in the commune and her growing self-consciousness. As the commune's internal order begins to break down under pressure from local officials and federal immigration authorities, Sarah becomes more intimate with Arhat, struggling to reconcile old values with new realities. While a far shot from Hawthorne, Sarah's story is sprightly, full of humor, and well told. This follow-up to Roger's Version ( LJ 9/1/86), also based on The Scarlet Letter, is recommended for most fiction collections. Ann H. Fisher, Radford P.L., Va.