When Knopf advertised Updike’s novel as “a Bildungsroman describing the education, romantic and otherwise, of Owen Mackenzie,” critics knew that the ending would be the crux of the literary proposal. Not that the “getting there” would be irrelevant. But the literary and moral value of the story would depend on where the journey ended.
Exploring the extraordinary ordinary dimensions of our lives has always been John Updike’s métier, in which he is peerless among American mid-20th-century writers. His writings, perhaps his short stories most powerfully, relentlessly expose a predictable dialectic: “Discontent, conflict, waste, sorrow, fear—these are the worthy dynamic subjects.
If this is not Frederick Buechner's valedictory volume it surely could be, given the pathos of his "Afterword": "If somebody a while back had offered me a thousand more years, I would have leapt at it, but at this point I would be inclined to beg off on the grounds that . . .
John Updike's 19th novel, plotted as a "prequel" to Shakespeare's Hamlet, is a beautifully crafted, captivating story. Updike owes much of his thematic treatment to Shakespeare and to modern Shakespeare scholarship, but it is his own fertile imagination that generates the novel's compelling narrative. This is his best book since The Witches of Eastwick.