BookBrowse Reviews My Father's Tears by John Updike

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

My Father's Tears

by John Updike

My Father's Tears by John Updike
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Jun 2009, 304 pages
    May 2010, 336 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Natasha Vargas-Cooper

Buy This Book

About this Book



The final collection from a modern master

I had never read Updike before. He isn't force-fed to us in public school like Salinger or Fitzgerald. It was chic to snub the canon and all its modern masters in the multi-cultural daze of college. I've always thumbed past his lauded columns in the The New Yorker, and until this year, I remained skeptical of Updike for no other reason than he was still alive. How could a man regarded as one of the greatest American writers still pump out stories like artillery shells? After his death, the coast felt clear to make an honest assessment of Updike's last collection of short stories. After reading the first story in this collection, I remembered something Martin Amis wrote about Updike: "having read him once, you admit to yourself, almost with a sigh that you will have to read everything he writes."

Amis is absolutely right.

The title of this collection evokes the theme of the book: trials of masculinity. Each story is a referendum on the manhood of middle class men, men whose bodies and passions have been shaved down by age. Most of the stories are told as memories, so the groping messiness of self-discovery is absent. Updike chronicles the lives of widowers, divorcees, adulterers, fathers with lyrical accuracy and savory insight.

Stories and passages about the vulnerability and compression of travel make for some of the best reading in My Father’s Tears. Updike's narrators describe the male anxiety of having to be navigator, protector, interpreter, and provider of leisure for his brood. In the refracted light of old age, Updike's men can see the fault lines of their relationships mostly clearly when they’re abroad. In "Morocco," one of the book's best, a father waits with his family for a bus to take them away from their botched vacation. Updike writes,

We stood beside an empty road at noon, six stray Americans, chunky and vulnerable in our woolly English clothes with our suitcases full of continental sun togs bought at Lillywhite's and of Penguins for vacation reading. The sun beat upon us, and the wind. The road dissolved at either end in a pink shimmer. "I can't believe this," my wife said. "I could cry."

Updike’s men tend to feel suffocated by the needs of their travel companions in the moment, but with reflection they all long for the dependency that welded their families to them.

The travel stories are only matched by the stories of adultery. They are tales of emotions after an affair; specifically, what do older men owe their mistresses? Or themselves? Once the responsibilities of family life have been lifted, what is a man supposed to do with his sense of obligation? Devote it to the woman he loved, though disregarded for the sake of his family? Two fantastic stories revolve around this question. In "Free," my favorite story, a man whose wife has succumbed to cancer decides to visit a woman he left twenty years prior. He surveys her changes and his own with tremendous poignancy. In "Delicate Wives," Les, a well-bred stiff, is driven into a jealous fit when his former mistress's "repellent" husband drives her to the hospital for a bee-sting. When Les convinces her to meet for lunch ten years later, he’s confronted with a sexless situation that’s thick with hesitation and nostalgia:

The waitress came back, and they hastily ordered, and passed the rest of the lunch uncomfortably, running out of the small talk, the innocent sharing that for so long he had felt deprived of. The small talk had come, however, in bed in the languid aftermath of erotic fulfillment. Veronica was less apt now, Les sensed, to be languid; she carried her wide-hipped, rangy body warily, as if it might detonate. There was something incandescent about her like a filament forced full of current.

Les, like many of Updike's men, ache for the fleeting tenderness of women who desired them. But, like their old mistresses, the men seem unable to muster their youthful gusto.

Updike's sentences are acrobatic; they’re deft and complicated, and unlike any prose I've read before. Though it’s flowery it remains shockingly lucid. Updike's generous use of adjectives gives his stories a sumptuous quality that some of his characters lack. Readers like me, who were weaned on the spartan prose style of Raymond Carver, will be amazed by the sturdiness of Updike's ideas. If you have been an Updike fan for all this time I imagine that Tears of My Father will coalesce smoothly into a prolific body of work that I look forward to discovering.

This review was originally published in July 2009, and has been updated for the May 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

One-Month Free Membership

Discover your next great read here

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Rules of Magic
    The Rules of Magic
    by Alice Hoffman
    Alice Hoffman's Rules of Magic is the long-awaited prequel to one of her most cherished novels,...
  • Book Jacket: Good Me Bad Me
    Good Me Bad Me
    by Ali Land
    Is a psychopath born or made? This is the terrifying question that author Ali Land explores in her ...
  • Book Jacket: Five-Carat Soul
    Five-Carat Soul
    by James McBride
    In the short story "Sonny's Blues," from the 1965 collection Going to Meet the Man, African-...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

An eye-opening and riveting look at how how medicine can not only improve life but also the process of its ending.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Seven Days of Us
    by Francesca Hornak

    A warm, wry debut novel about a family forced to spend a week together over the holidays.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win The Wisdom of Sundays

The Wisdom of Sundays
by Oprah Winfrey

Life-changing insights from super soul conversations.


Word Play

Solve this clue:

A Good M I H T F

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.