The Widows of Eastwick
By John Updike
Alfred A. Knopf, 308 pages, $24.95
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes. —Macbeth, Act IV, Scene 1
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? The return of The Witches of Eastwick?
If only. John Updike’s weird sisters, returned now as widows, aren’t so much wicked as weary, and wearying.
And yet Updike adepts will find much to admire in this late novel. If you’re happy to ignore certain elements (plot, for instance), you’ll find yourself in descriptive prose heaven. But if you prefer to fall blessedly into a book the way Alice fell down the rabbit hole—that is, if you still read naïvely—you’ll hate The Widows of Eastwick.
Or love it. Welcome to the next little skirmish in the literary gender wars.
SOME 30 YEARS HAVE gone by since Mr. Updike’s juicy trio of hags conjured themselves husbands and skipped town at the conclusion of Witches. And there are 24 actual years between the publication of these twinned novels.
One can only venture that these decades have not been kind to Mr. Updike, because he has revived Alexandra, Jane and Sukie, it seems, for the covert pleasure of hunting them down and stripping them—exposing them to his corrosive eye.
And nose. Mr. Updike’s is a sensory prose: observant, auditory and intensely olfactory. (The sex scenes depress not merely one’s appetite, but one’s appetites.) The weird sisters are in a merciless decline, leading one to wonder who the author’s muse or muses might be. His own self and soul? There’s such disgust here: “Fearful, as she bent over, of releasing a gust of rectal smell, Alexandra …” “[T]heir eyes helplessly fed on the wrinkles, the warts and scars, the … crêpey skin crinkled like smooth water touched by a breath of wind, the varicose veins and arthritic deformations with which time had overlaid their old beauty.”
The Widows of Eastwick is truly scary, but not for its events. I won’t give away what happens other than to say it includes revenge taken upon the witches for their previous magic—a tale of “guilt” and “guilt assuaged”—and involves a more elastic notion of sexuality than that in the original volume.
This polymorphous perversity would be what makes the sequel contemporary, I suppose. It will come as quite a surprise, I expect, to Jack Nicholson, who played the satanic witch seducer Darryl in the larky movie made out of Witches. (Yes, it’s fun to cast this second novel, though there’s no Darryl—you need two actresses who can convincingly be made to appear to be in their 70s, and one in her late 60s, plus some kind of ageless golden boy like Art Garfunkel, but suntanned.)
Mr. Updike seems an almost reluctant storyteller, taking up his first 100 pages or so with juiceless, dispiriting travelogues. It’s only a third or so through the novel that the witches regroup in Eastwick, R.I., in a couple of sad condos by the sea.
In search of lost brine … There we are in New England, rusting, rotting, putrefying. If this book has a useful unstated moral, it’s that for une femme d’une certaine âge, it’s better to be Parisian than Puritan. Not that Mr. Updike mentions Paris, but one can extrapolate. And plan.
SAD, SAD, SAD. A memento mori is one thing. “The heart beats time. Time beats us.” Constant reminders that we start to decay and molder not merely as a postlude to death, but as a prelude, are another thing altogether. This book will probably be best enjoyed by those not only in the full, smug bloom of youth, but also resistant to the depression triggered by the author’s accurate delineation of a certain male view of women, here sublimated in narrative, rather than embodied in a protagonist.
What are we to make of Jane’s “piquancy as it were, her unseen underside, the darkness she sat on, the heat and dirtiness …” ? And of this about a garden club lady: “[She] knew what women were, dirty and yearning and in need of being controlled.”
And poor Jane again: “She touched her breastbone, between her deflated little breasts; in her nakedness the gesture repulsively roused an image of the lightless world within her. …” Or how about this? “… [T]heir nether parts, hairy and odorous and for many Christian centuries unspeakable.” And this? “… [T]heir nests of once thick and springy curls turned gauzy and grey, pubic clocks ticking unseen, decade after decade, in their underpants.”
I’m no fan of passive aggression, authorial or otherwise, nor of the crone movement, which posits that wisdom replaces beauty and that house pets replace men and children in some sort of satisfactory swap, and that we should, as the years increase and time dwindles, cackle while we work.
FEMININITY RESIDES IN MORE than fertility; it’s a cast of mind and character. One is a woman, and thus all one’s acts and all one’s powers, whatever they may be, are ipso facto womanly, for all one’s life.
“Oh, that beautiful sang de menstruës. Who would ever think we’d miss it?” Jane asks Sukie, whose white roots will later show at the parting of her hair just as Jane’s do now.
“Nature,” says Alexandra, the kindest witch. “I used to think I loved it, but now that it’s chewing me to death, I realize I hate it and fear it.”
“Fear of something,” writes Mr. Updike, “makes it happen.”
The Widows of Eastwick made me afraid to be alive. I did finish the book. (I had to.) But I think henceforth I’ll read John Updike when he supplies the how of things—but the who, what, where and when come ready-made.
Updike on art, on sport, but not on life.
Nancy Dalva reviews books regularly for The Observer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.