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The Widows of Eastwick: A Novelby John Updike
Synopses & Reviews
More than three decades have passed since the events described in John Updike's The Witches of Eastwick. The three divorcées — Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie — have left town, remarried, and become widows. They cope with their grief and solitude as widows do: they travel the world, to such foreign lands as Canada, Egypt, and China, and renew old acquaintance. Why not, Sukie and Jane ask Alexandra, go back to Eastwick for the summer?
The old Rhode Island seaside town, where they indulged in wicked mischief under the influence of the diabolical Darryl Van Horne, is still magical for them. Now Darryl is gone, and their lovers of the time have aged or died, but enchantment remains in the familiar streets and scenery of the village, where they enjoyed their lusty primes as free and empowered women.
And, among the local citizenry, there are still those who remember them, and wish them ill. How they cope with the lingering traces of their evil deeds, the shocks of a mysterious counterspell, and the advancing inroads of old age, form the burden on Updike's delightful, ominous sequel.
"Motivated by advancing age, loneliness, latent guilt and a sense of unfinished business, the erstwhile Witches of Eastwick return to their former Rhode Island coastal town in this tepid sequel to the 1984 novel. Alexandra, the fleshy Earth Mother; Jane, the wasp-tongued snob; and Sukie, a would-be a sexpot operating beyond her expiration date, have each survived the second marriages that took place following their flight from Eastwick in the early '70s, after a rival, Jenny Gabriel, died as a result of their spell. Where before they were strong, sassy, lusty and empowered, now in late middle-age they are vulnerable, fearful and in thrall to their aging bodies. Witchcraft is now beyond them; when they try to resurrect their supernatural powers to atone for their guilt, an inadvertent death ensues. While Updike remains amazingly capable of capturing women's thoughts about their bodies and their sex lives, the plot never gains momentum; the first hundred pages, in fact, are tedious travelogues covering the widows' travels to Egypt and China. Updike's observations about culture and social disharmony flash with their customary brilliance — a less than sparkling Updike novel is still an Updike novel." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
From Nathaniel Hawthorne to Shirley Jackson, American writers have been fascinated by the legacy of Salem witchcraft. Whether the good and wicked witches of Oz or the repressed and malicious teenage girls of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," literary witches have represented our culture's attraction to, and fear of, female sexuality, empowerment and creativity. John Updike first attempted to update witchcraft... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) in his playful novel "The Witches of Eastwick" (1984), which places three 30-something divorcees in the late 1960s, the era of sexual revolution and women's liberation. Living in a seaside Rhode Island town, Updike's witches are desperate housewives who dabble in black magic for lack of something better to do with their intelligence. All three are small-time artists as well: Alexandra, a sculptor of little clay figures; Jane, a cellist in a chamber music group; and Sukie, a writer for the local newspaper. When a devilish and seductive man named Darryl Van Horne moves into town with his hot tub, tennis court and Pop Art collection, they become eager members of his coven, participating in diabolical revels and midnight orgies that lead to catastrophic ends. The novel was made into a sexy movie starring Jack Nicholson, turned into a hexy stage musical produced by Cameron Mackintosh, and is now rumored to be under consideration as a TV series for ABC. In his new novel, Updike has resurrected his witches in their late 60s and early 70s as widows of second marriages, who return to Eastwick for a summer vacation and attempt to atone with white magic for their earlier sins. As he proved in his brilliant Rabbit tetralogy and his hilarious novels about his literary alter-ego Bech, Updike is skilled at sequels. He closely follows the three-part structure of "Witches" and meticulously recycles Eastwick's geography and social details, down to the "old spatter-pattern blue enamel pots" Alexandra uses for pasta; the ancient horse trough in the center of the town square, now planted with juniper and dwarf spruce; and the sermons at the Unitarian Church on Cocumscussoc Way. He is still a master stylist who reinvigorates cliche, as in comparing an old woman's dry brown fingers to pretzel sticks; and an astonishingly erudite writer, whose knowledge extends to American art, Baroque music, Chinese dynasties, Protestant theology, electromagnetic science and even Tarot cards and popular songs. Unfortunately, Updike seems to know very little about the psychology, concerns and behavior of older women. Age has brought these widows neither insight nor humor; they have no feelings for their grandchildren, nor any interest in politics, popular culture or other people's problems. Updike describes them as ancient hags, emphasizing "the wrinkles, the warts and scars, the keratoses and liver spots, the slack muscles and patches of crepey skin ... the varicose veins and arthritic deformations with which time had overlaid their old beauty." They talk a lot about "sex after seventy," incontinence, cancer fears and what Updike calls their "nether parts." No deep thinker, Alexandra tells her 50-year-old daughter that sexism and job discrimination drove her into witchcraft: "Girls your age just can't realize how few opportunities there were for women when I was young. Our job was to make babies and buy American consumer goods. If we fell off the marriage bandwagon, there was nothing much left for us but to ride a broomstick and cook up spells." Perhaps women have more opportunities in the 21st century (there are female physicians and a New Age minister in Eastwick now), but the widows have not taken advantage of them. Alexandra is still crafting the little female figures without hands or feet that she calls "bubbies" (babies? breasts? grandmothers?), a cross between the sculptor Niki de St. Phalle's colorful "nanas" and the primitive fertility figures of the Venus of Willendorf. Sukie, a writer of paperback romance novels, has become a gruesome cougar who likes to service much younger men. Moreover, Updike maintains, America is stuck in "another quagmire," and the continent itself contains a "dark countercurrent." Civilization, Sukie vaguely warns, has only a tenuous hold, and "there is this darkness waiting to sweep in again." Yet these dim forebodings never develop into a substantive critique of the Puritan roots of American culture, the ways sexual guilt, superstition and prejudice can lead to violence and destruction. In lieu of understanding American malaise in terms of women's lives, "Widows" is padded with digressions and irrelevant details, lengthy travelogues and tedious lectures. Alexandra, widowed and alone in Santa Fe, goes on a tour to the Canadian Rockies, and soon she has reconnected with Jane, widowed and idle in Boston, to take a Nile cruise. Then Sukie, widowed in Connecticut, joins them for an excursion to China, with full accounts of its culture and history. Mercifully, before he schleps them to Antarctica and Peru, Updike sends the widows back to Eastwick on an unlikely holiday rental of the old mansion that Van Horne left behind. But without Van Horne, the life force and comic center of "Witches," the women's adventures seem pallid and pointless. At the novel's end, Sukie and Alexandra are hopefully contemplating another tour, but for readers the spell is broken. Elaine Showalter is professor emeritus of English at Princeton University. Her new book, "A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx," will be published in February. Reviewed by Elaine Showalter, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Vibrant characters, careful detailing, and a sense of anticipation of impending dire events leave this an absorbing read, enjoyable to its fullest even by readers unfamiliar with its predecessor." Booklist
"A work of old age that takes its time, gently drawing us into its knowing orbit. We inhabit this story as we do the later stages of our own lives. Some will not like the book, but it is a vital part of the Updike experience." Kirkus Reviews
"[A]n unsatisfying rumination on the loss of sexual vitality and death. As elegant a writer as he is, Updike has not quite been able to create fully drawn women characters who have vital lives and personalities of their own." Library Journal
"The author's real feat (aside from his gorgeous prose) is in vividly taking us inside the lives of three women in the early stages of their old ages....If these widows/witches have lost a little of their magic, their creator has not." Chicago Sun-Times
"Updike has slowed events to a dreamlike pace and given them a dream's hyperreality, so that the distinction between the actual and the imagined feels erased." New York Times
"The travelogues are entertaining essays-in-dialogue, where sharply etched scenery and fact-filled reflections on ancient lives mix with some boisterous, politically incorrect riffing on accents and stereotypes." Los Angeles Times
"There is magic in his Eastwick revisited, and realism, too. Sometimes in the same paragraph." Miami Herald
"With its fiery energy and wicked humor, The Widows of Eastwick is a truly enjoyable book to read, and one suspects it was an immensely satisfying novel to write." Kansas City Star
"John Updike is who he is, and, to those of us who admire his approach to his topics and themes, we conclude that no one does it better." San Antonio Express-News
More than three decades have passed since the events described in The Witches of Eastwick. Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie had each remarried and left town. Now all three are widowed and have returned to the Rhode Island seaside town in this long-awaited follow-up.
About the Author
John Updike was born in 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954 and spent a year in Oxford, England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of The New Yorker and since 1957 has lived in Massachusetts. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Rosenthal Award, and the Howells Medal.
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