John Updike


"The Widows of Eastwick"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple DEC 7, 2008)

“With their reunion, their powers were returning as prickings, foreshadowings, a girlish relish in malice, in maleficia. They agreed, over dizzying plum brandy in the hotel bar, that their next illusory projection—this faintest, flimsiest exercise, scarcely more supernatural than intuition and hypnosis—would come from all three, united under their cone of power, against an outsider.”

Thirty years after Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie worked their black magic on their enemies in Eastwick, Rhode Island, earning the enmity of many of its citizens, they decide to return to Eastwick for a summer vacation. The three women, all of whom conjured up “ideal” husbands after their Eastwick experience, have all been widowed, and they have not had much contact with each other during the thirty year interim. Alexandra has been a potter in New Mexico, Sukie has been a romance writer living in Connecticut, and Jane, formerly a cellist, has been a socialite in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Reconnecting initially through letters and phone calls, the women have traveled to international destinations together during the previous two summers—first, a trip by Alexandra and Jane to Egypt, and the following year a trip by all three to China—but they have not spent a long period of time together, and though all of them have changed, they look forward to their return to Eastwick, partly out of curiosity and partly out of guilt. Alexandra, in particular, believes that they bear full responsibility for the death of Jenny Gabriel, the young witch who surprised them all by marrying Darryl Van Horne, the devil with whom all three women had had affairs—and expectations—thirty years before.

Their return to Eastwick is shocking to all its inhabitants. Taking the only summer rental they can find—at the former Van Horne mansion, now condos--they discover that the town has changed, not surprisingly, and many of the people they knew there are now dead. “Eastwick’s lost its messy charm,” Jane notes. “It’s gotten homogenized, all smoothed out—the curbs downtown all fancy granite, and the Old Stone Bank twice the size it was, like some big bland cancer gobbling up everything. And the younger people, the age we were when we were here—ssso tiresome…People go around mourning the death of God; it’s the death of sin that bothers me. Without sin, people aren’t people any more, they’re just sheep.”

But something about those “sheep” continues to bother Jane. “There’s something unfriendly out there,” she believes. When they discover that Christopher Gabriel is in town, they know that this “disciple” of Darryl Van Horne, who is also the brother of Jenny Gabriel, the young bride killed by Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie, will bring about a showdown that may cost them their lives.

Updike’s prose often sparkles, filled with the figurative language that he has made a trademark, and his tone keeps the reader amused and interested in the three witches. The dialogue is often wooden, however, as he sometimes uses it to give a great deal of essential background information to his readers while attempting to advance the action. The first one hundred pages are devoted to the women’s trips to Egypt and China, where they (and the reader) get lectured about other belief systems concerning man’s relationship to the world of death, suggesting some similarities between these civilizations from the ancient past and the women’s own witchcraft. Two brief episodes of their magical powers abroad provide amusing reminders that these are witches, not just tourists.

Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie do not arrive in Eastwick until more than one-third of the book has passed, however, and though they try to correct the wrongs of the past by doing good deeds in the present, they must also “watch their backs.” The intensity of their malevolence, which was such an involving feature of 1984’s The Witches of Eastwick, disappears in this book, and with it much of the fun of reading. Here they are the possible victims of another’s revenge—relatively passive characters who spend more time remembering their past lives than in making the most of their present lives. The differences in their personalities lead the three women in different directions this late in their lives, and one of the women shows in graphic, explicit detail that adventuresome sex can still be a powerful weapon, even for the elderly.

Those who enjoyed Witches, with its imaginative and unapologetically vengeful characters, may be disappointed by the characters’ desire to make amends and “be nice” in this novel, and the author’s focus, late in the book, on possible scientific explanations for some of the witches’ powers makes the novel less fantastic and, frankly, more pedestrian.

  • Amazon readers' rating: from 35 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt of The Widows of Eastwick at Random House



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About the Author:

John UpdikeJohn Updike was born in 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania, as an only child. His father taught algebra in a local high school, and his mother wrote short stories and novels. After getting straight A's in high school, he went to Harvard University on a full scholarship, studying English and graduating summa cum laude in 1954. After graduation, he spent a year in England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford.  From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of The New Yorker, to which he has contributed poems, fiction, essays, and book reviews. 

He is the author of over fifty books, including collections of short stories, poems and criticism. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Rosenthal Award, the Howells Medal and the Campion Medal. He essentially published a book or so a year.

In 1959 Updike published both his first book of short fiction, The Same Door, and his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair. That year he also moved from New York City to the coastal town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, where he lived most of the time since.

Updike won the National Book Award in 1963 for his novel The Centaur. He gained popular success with Couples, published in 1968, a tale of adultery among middle-class couples in a small New England town. He was most famous for his four "Rabbit" novels, which chronicled the adventures of one Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom; the last two novels Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, each won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

He was twice married and the father of four children.

John Updike died at the age of 76 on January 27, 2009 of lung cancer at a hospice near his home in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts.

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