John Updike’s Rabbit series is unusual in the literary world for several reasons. For starters, it’s a series of books that doesn’t involve any supernatural, magical or militaristic elements. It’s also very adult material, with probably as much time spent on sexual acts as anything I’ve read (including the awful “50 Shades of Grey”) but described more realistically than you would find in an erotica novel. Most impressively, the series was written over 41 years and takes place in real time with the characters and current events aging with the author (and readers who originally picked up the series). The series is to literature what “Savage Dragon” is to comic books or “Boyhood” is to film, an achievement and testament to its creator merely for existing.
The idea of this series, following the life and death of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom as detailed over generations, was so interesting to me that the quality of the books almost became secondary. Having now finished the series, I’m glad I read it all chronologically as each of the five installments was essential in understanding who the characters were and why they reacted to situations as they did. If you are planning on reading this series, there’s no other order you should read it in than “Rabbit, Run” –> “Rabbit Redux” –> “Rabbit is Rich” –> “Rabbit at Rest” –> “Rabbit Remembered.” But that’s not very fun to write about, so here are some thoughts on how enjoyable each of the books in the series is, ranked from worst to best:
5. Rabbit Redux
Release date: 1971
Chronological Order: Second
The two easiest choices in ranking this series are best and worst. I enjoyed every Rabbit book except for this one that takes all of the social strife of its era and tells the ugliest story in the entire series. Even in later books the events of “Rabbit Redux” are spoken of in disbelief, with plenty of “do you believe the time Harry had that teen girl and her drug dealer move in with him and then _____ happened?” In addition to general unpleasantness of the story, the book is also bogged down with racial language of the era that will make many readers uncomfortable. I almost quit reading the series after this one, but after finishing the next three books my dislike for this book is tempered as it became just another crazy memory in the lives of its characters.
Release Date: 2001
Chronological Order: Fifth
This novella is shorter than the rest of the series and also is missing a major focal point from the rest of the series. Despite that, Updike tells a compelling story about Rabbit’s two surviving children and the people they have grown up to become. The real world politics and current events that make it into every story resonated the most for me of any book in the series as they were the headlines and pop culture of my youth. The biggest drawback however is that any ending to this story pales in comparison to the excellent and fitting conclusion to “Rabbit at Rest” in terms of wrapping up the series.
Release Date: 1981
Chronological Order: Third
“Rabbit is Rich” and the second place book on this list are interchangeable in terms of quality. Here Updike has abandoned the extreme events of “Rabbit Redux” in favor of a much more toned down and relatable storyline. As Rabbit has finally settled down and reduced the drama in his work and personal life, his son Nelson is now old enough to supply drama enough for both of them. The ending of this book gets into the most over the top sexual situations in the entire series, so if that’s something that turns you off at the end keep in mind it’s all toned back down after this book.
2. Rabbit, Run
Release Date: 1960
Chronological Order: First
A young married man decides to abandon his pregnant wife and young child in favor of the thrill of escape. I’ll give this book the edge over “Rabbit is Rich” for being the book that established this entire fictional family tree, business and household that have survived so well throughout the series. Just about everything that happens in the rest of the Rabbit series can be traced to an event in this first book. At parts heartbreaking and other moments infuriating, Updike does a great job of making unlikable characters interesting and sympathetic.
Release Date: 1990
Chronological Order: Fourth
The only book in the series I would call a classic on its own, “Rabbit at Rest” is the rare book that delights on every page and even makes you reevaluate earlier books in a more favorable light. Now a grandparent, Harry’s bad behavior swings more toward curmudgeon and for the first time in the series is even a likable character at times. However, Harry is also still the same man he’s always been and behaves true to form when given the opportunity. The family drama provides the most interesting moments in thirty years of history for Harry, Janice and Nelson. I also can’t speak highly enough about the ending, which provides nostalgia and cyclical storytelling better than just about anything I’ve read. I loved this book for how it made me reevaluate and love the entire series.