The Widows of Eastwick, one of John Updike’s last books, follows an earlier novel, The Witches of Eastwick. In the sequel, three elderly women, Alexandra, Jane and Sukie decide to go back to the scene of their witchery, Eastwick, Rhode Island, and perhaps perform some white magic, as opposed to the black arts they engaged in long ago.
The idea is that by following old practices, chanting the right chants, focusing the right energies, and holding the right beliefs, a group of women can generate a cone of power from which they can draw magical effects.
As an anchor for a novel’s plot, this is a pretty flimsy proposition, even when it is turned on its head and a former victim (by extension) begins retaliating against the women through the use (as explained late in the book) of quantum mechanics.
But Updike surely intended this to be a mischievous, discursive, playful novel, and he wanted to write about aging women and their attitudes towards themselves and others...and in this he succeeded. Further, he retained to the end of his writing career an astonishing ability to describe visual phenomena, be they Egyptian tombs, Canadian rock faces, the twitches in an unfriendly face, or the cavernous playground of New York City, portrayed here as the capital of nonsense.
The real core of the book is the uncomfortable relationship among the three women...how they accommodate what they don’t like about one another...and the link between women and the true source of magic, Nature, a kind of background character that bewilders us all in its mystery, its extent, its inexplicability, and, by extension, our own inexplicability.
For Updike fans this novel is one more attempt to conjure the mystery of things, partially through social reality, partially through Nature, and partly through one of his persistent preoccupations, the spiritual world, or, more simply put: religion.
Over the years it’s my impression that Updike kept trying to do new things with prose (and poetry) and lost much of his audience. He wrote beautifully, he observed acutely, but he grew more distant from the palpable struggles so evident in his famous Rabbit books. And even though he never lost interest in sex, sex organs, sex acts, sex effects, he seems to have peaked on that subject in a novel called Couples, written in the sixties. In The Widows of Eastwick, he has some fun making Sukie a writer of romance novels who understands that women do not like to be subjected to too much explicitness when it comes to moments of sexual conquest and consummation. Updike himself loved that stuff, so he was in effect making fun of himself.
He didn’t leave anything to the imagination because he had the rarest gift, still evident here, of being able to put the imagination into words. Originally thinking he would be a graphic artist, he never lost interest in all the things painting and drawing portray: he learned to name those things and sequence them in sentences so that water leaked out of pipes in a certain limpid way and doorknobs beckoned to be turned lightly...or with force...or with no hope at all, because the door was locked, the character was trapped, the character had to sit and think and remember and fill in narrative blanks until he could be rescued, perhaps by accident, perhaps with malicious or beneficent intent.
Updike’s gift for reality was strong from start to finish. One personal example: The first Updike novel I read was the first Rabbit book, Rabbit Run. In it Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom has decided he’s got to flee his life and so he takes off on the highway one night and in the course of his driving he sees a sign that says, “Pottstown, 20 miles.” But wait! I was in Pottstown, Pennsylvania when I read those words. Rabbit was heading my way. He existed, and therefore I existed, and I was only sixteen!
That’s what it was and still is about Updike: Go to Taos or travel up the Nile and you will find yourself looking at a chunky piece of pottery resembling the woman of Willendorf or a glass of gin in which the ice cube has melted to the size of a dime. And Updike will have made you see these things exactly as you see them because he described them perfectly to you before you saw them.
The Widows of Eastwick isn’t a strong novel, per se, but the writing is strong, and that’s its virtue: sentences that make you blink, reread, and then blink again.
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