The Witches of Eastwick, by John Updike, published in 1984, was a marvellously entertaining book about three divorced women with powers of witchcraft living in the small town of Eastwick on Rhode Island. Their sorcery is woven into the story of their lives in a way that allows for more than one interpretation, so that we are never entirely clear whether the things they cause to happen might not have happened anyway. Witchery is in the air; it’s just a slight tilt in perspective and a sensitivity to undercurrents.
So I was delighted to see The Widows of Eastwick appear in the library, but it didn’t live up to my expectations. I found the first 120 pages confusing. As a sequel, it seemed to suffer from the length of time that has elapsed between it and the earlier book (24 years between publication dates; over three decades in the lives of the characters). Also, for me, the women from Witches had become overlaid in my mind in the intervening years by the entertaining performances of Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer playing Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie in the 1987 movie that was rather loosely based on the book (my failing, of course, not the author’s). Anyway, I was having difficulty relating the three aging women in Widows to the three younger women in Witches and keeping their histories straight.
Furthermore, I kept feeling that Widows ought to be able to stand on its own as a book about three women in their seventies looking for answers through their travels. The references to their earlier lives seemed irritating and unnecessary — a bit of a stretch to link the books, for reasons I couldn’t understand.
On the other hand, Alexandra’s first trip is to Canada’s two westernmost provinces, so I was entertained by Updike’s take on loonies and toonies, tourism on the Athabasca Glacier and Canada’s “gray imperial gravity of public architecture.” And when Jane and Alexandra are in Egypt, the cultural aspects of death in ancient Egyptian civilization are thought-provoking, as the women are inevitably considering their own mortality. So, fine, I thought: their travels will shed light on the meaning of life, women’s lives in particular, as we draw near to death and it will be a chance to read some of Updike’s brilliant prose. China is next and the three of them are reunited for this trip, checking out the Great Wall, “Gates, courtyards, halls — of Supreme Harmony, of Preserving Harmony, of Mental Cultivation, of Complete Harmony, of Clocks and Watches …”, and Mao’s mausoleum. But it still feels unsatisfactory and unsettled and we’re a third of the way into the book.
Finally, the lengthy preamble is over and they decide to return to Eastwick for an extended visit. So it is, after all, to be a book about revisiting the earlier story, possibly attempting to right some wrongs done the first time around.
When they get around to casting spells again, the way they perform the magic is convincing, as it was in Witches. This time, they don’t have the dramatic backdrop of the Van Horne mansion, so it’s done in the way that a group of friends might work on a recipe together, remembering some parts and improvising others:
At the formerly Armenian hardware store, Alexandra bought a putty knife, with the requisite black handle, that could do for a ceremonial athame, and one of those two-sided travel mirrors on a folding wire stand, to serve as a window into the astral world …
When the ceremony was over, she would vacuum up the magic circle she now drew on the carpet with a line of detergent granules of Cascade, straight from the spout of the box. She drew four-fifths of a circle the size of a queen-size bed … she had bought five aromatic candles — rose, peach, raspberry, lavender, and aqua in color, and spaced them evenly around the circle she had drawn, forming the ghost of a pentacle.
It’s a kinder, gentler witchcraft, using items found in any kitchen cupboard.
There’s a lot of sex, of course, as this is Updike, and nothing is soft-focus or romantic. The descriptions of the imperfect, idiosyncratic, aging bodies contorting themselves to obtain release or at least some kind of closeness are either sad or perhaps just clear-eyed and factual, depending on your point of view.
The multitude of ways in which our bodies fail us as we get older is a recurring theme. And there are other kinds of loss: they don’t get the satisfaction from sculpture, music, or writing that they once did (well, Sukie writes bodice-rippers, pouring them out effortlessly for an hour at her laptop every day, but maybe that doesn’t count for as much as her laboured-over newspaper stories used to). Emily Nussbaum points out that the women in this book are the poorer for having lost the passionate artistry and creativity that was such a large part of their characters in Witches.
The mutual dependency of the three women, despite their differences, is a prickly, unsatisfactory thing: they were friends — they still are, but they don’t seem to like each other all that much. Their children are a little distant, though they have mostly survived their neglectful upbringings quite well. But they remain minor characters.
So: it’s structurally lacking, somewhat rambling and somewhat unsatisfying. It’s a little bleak. Updike doesn’t sugar-coat anything, although he has the ability to write lyrically about sad things. In his hands, these last decades of life with their waning powers are treated with an unfaltering directness that is perhaps more respectful than any gentler approach. It’s not one of his great books, but it raises a lot of questions. Maybe it’s the ideal book club discussion book.