Witches' brew

  • Article by: LAURA BILLINGS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 24, 2008 - 4:08 PM

After 20 years, John Updike brings back his witches of Eastwick, who have aged both like fine wine and like grumpy old women.

The Widows of Eastwick by John Updike

Age and time have diminished the powers of the bewitching trio who first wreaked havoc and ruined marriages in John Updike's 1984 novel, "The Witches of Eastwick."

Three decades later, their earthy leader, Alexandra, spins clay pots in the desert with a husband she conjured for herself from a hollowed pumpkin and a cowboy hat. Sukie, the oversexed reporter, has morphed into a suburban romance writer, married to a computer sales con man. Even Jane, the one witch who mastered flight, got tied down to "that type of sandy-haired man, with even teeth, small ears, and blue eyes, who early in life got the idea, probably from his infatuated mother, that he was irresistible."

Brittle and brilliantly observed asides like that propel readers through a hundred pages of precisely written but otherwise aimless girlfriend getaways across Canadian glaciers, past Egyptian pyramids and over the Great Wall of China, before the recently widowed witches -- twitchy with renewed power -- finally rent a summer condo in Eastwick, R.I. The plan, says Sukie, is to "revisit the scene of our primes," a Freudian pun that recalls what a good time these three had being bad.

"The Widows of Eastwick" is as solemnly frothy as its predecessor, and readers who try to decode its message for masters theses (Is witchcraft a metaphor for feminism? Does freedom from men give women their real power? Does Updike actually like women?) may be missing all the pointless fun.

Updike still casts a very clever spell, making sorcery seem possible simply by pointing out the practical challenges of present-day magic, as when Alexandra creates a sacred portal to the Goddess by sprinkling a circle of Cascade dishwashing soap around a rented carpet. Still, one can't help wishing he followed Sukie's instincts about writing sex scenes ("Women know the facts but don't like them spelled out") in several descriptions of phallus worship that seem as artificial and enduring as a dose of Viagra.

"The Witches of Eastwick" was set in the early 1970s, and Updike has some fun with how the increasingly puritanical standards of today's attachment parenting makes three single moms hot-tubbing at Darryl Van Horne's strobe-lit mansion seem even worse than it was at the time. "You skipped out on us emotionally," complains Alexandra's appropriately embittered adult daughter.

"Girls your age just can't realize how few opportunities there were for women when I was young," Alexandra explains. "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."

The most diabolical of these set cancer cells aflame in their rival all those years ago, a death that still pricks at their consciences -- but rather too lightly for anything like a climactic resolution. In a way, this book suffers from the same kind of bone loss that its seventy-something characters are prone to, without quite enough muscle mass or magic to make it really take flight.

Laura Billings is a St. Paul writer.

  • THE WIDOWS OF EASTWICK

    By: John Updike.

    Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 320 pages, $24.95.

    Review: This book takes a while to get going and the end is a bit pat, but there's plenty of magical fun in the middle.

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