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Picks and Pans Review: Brazil

updated 03/21/1994 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1994 01:00AM

by John Updike

Like Dorothy in Oz, Updike fans will likely discover, just a few chapters into the author's 16th novel, that they're certainly not in Connecticut anymore. Brazil reads more like a parable from Jorge {Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands) Amado than anything by the esteemed chronicler of North American suburban life. Not only does much of it take place deep in the Brazilian jungle but the plot involves characters who switch races, thanks to the spell cast by a native shaman.

Tristão is a black teenager from the slums when he meets fair Isabel on a Rio beach. Soon after their initial coupling, Isabel's rich uncle separates them: in race-conscious Brazil, such mingling of blood and class is unacceptable. But even after Tristão and Isabel run off together to the jungle, where Isabel is captured by another man, they are forever bound to each other. Believing that her lover will fare better as a white man, she persuades a magician to make her black so that Tristão can have her whiteness.

That such hocus-pocus fails to save the lovers will come as no surprise to readers familiar with the legend of the doomed Tristan and Isolde, on which this novel is loosely based. But then, Brazil merely uses the story as a vehicle to explore some typical Updikian themes: the social politics of love, the connection between sex and violence, the inevitable failure of most social contracts. All of which exist, the author seems to be saying, both somewhere over the equator—and in our own backyards. (Knopf, $23)

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