S. is the story of Sarah P. Worth, a thoroughly modern spiritual seeker who has become enamored of a Hindu mystic called the Arhat. A native New Englander, she goes west to join his ashram in Arizona, and there struggles alongside fellow sannyasins (pilgrims) in the difficult attempt to subdue ego and achieve moksha (salvation, release from illusion). “S.” details her adventures in letters and tapes dispatched to her husband, her daughter, her brother, her dentist, her hairdresser, and her psychiatrist—messages cleverly designed to keep her old world in order while she is creating for herself a new one. This is Hester Prynne’s side of the triangle described by Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter; it is also a burlesque of the quest for enlightenment, and an affectionate meditation on American womanhood.
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.