It is always risky for a writer or filmmaker to produce a sequel to a favorite work: the second installment so seldom measures up to the first, and all too often taints its predecessor with its comparative mediocrity. But John Updike is not one to let the odds bother him — and why should he? He is blessed with seemingly infinite inventive resources and can afford to be daring and profligate with his ideas; sometimes his wild imaginative leaps succeed and sometimes they don’t, but failure has never made him any more cautious the next time around.
One of the most eccentric ideas he ever came up with was the premise for The Witches of Eastwick (1985): three women develop magical powers upon divorcing their husbands and operate as a coven in the seaside town of Eastwick, Rhode Island. What makes the book so funny and clever is that aside from their witching prowess there is nothing very remarkable about Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie: they are just highly sexed women on the cusp of middle age, working their way through all the available (and indeed unavailable) local male talent. (“Being a divorc?e in a small town is a little like playing Monopoly,” Alexandra reflects; “eventually you land on all the properties.”) True to the humorless political literalism of the last couple of decades, quite a few readers considered The Witches of Eastwick to be a misogynist work, but when you look at it unblinkered by ideology, it is clear that the novel constitutes a passionately enthusiastic paean to the Circean sexual powers of ripe femininity, and the pitiless greed with which it demands to be satisfied.
Now, with The Widows of Eastwick, Updike has brought his witches into the new century. When they left Rhode Island back in the 1970s, each woman had conjured up an ideal husband: Jane, an antique-collecting Boston Brahmin; Alexandra, a cowboy/potter in Taos; Sukie, a slick money man. Now, all widowed and approaching 70, they decide to return to Eastwick for a summer, partly out of lingering guilt over the evil deeds they committed there so long ago and partly, we suspect, in an attempt to regain a bit of the power — physical, sexual, magical — they enjoyed in their prime. “There’s something there, there always was,” Jane insists. “The spirit of Anne Hutchinson, it could be. It was liberating, empowering. We came into our own. We should never have found husbands and left.”
Marriage, they consider, diminished their powers; now they try to regain them, just at that fatal moment when nature has become their enemy instead of their ally. “I used to think I loved ,” Alexandra says, “but now that it’s chewing me to death, I realize I hate it and fear it.” And coming back together as a trio, they do retaste a little of the heady past, at least momentarily.
But they are old, and the times are radically different. The decade of the 1970s, post-Pill, pre-AIDS, was the heyday of supercharged extramarital sex, and Updike was its prophet. Thirty-five years on, he and his characters wonder why it is all so different now. Jane thinks that perhaps the repression that still hung on into the ’70s had something to do with the era’s feeling of pent-up energy, and she compares Then and Now with some asperity:
And the younger people, the age we were when we were here — ssso tiresome, just from the look of them, toned-up young mothers driving their overweight boys in overweight SUVs to hockey practice twenty miles away, the young fathers castrated namby-pambies helping itty-bitty wifey with the housekeeping, spending all Saturday fussing around the lovely home. It’s the Fifties all over again, without the Russians as an excuse. You wonder how they managed to fuck enough to make their precious children. They probably didn’t — it’s all in vitro now, and every birth is cesarean, so the doctors won’t get sued. 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.
As this citation shows, the three witches are not afraid of sin. As it also shows, they have little time for the younger generation, including their own children. All three were neglectful mothers, even by the loose standards of their day; now they are peevishly resented by their adult offspring, whom they look on, in turn, with contempt — especially the daughters, who are disappointingly un-witchlike. Updike dealt with the three women’s inadequate mothering off-handedly in the first novel — after all, that was just the way his generation behaved — but The Widows of Eastwick is, in part, an apology to the wronged children. Alexandra coexists calmly enough with her son (“He actually was a Republican, like his father — but it seemed much worse in a son than in a husband. You expected it in a husband”) but finds herself compelled to come to some sort of emotional terms with her daughter Marcie, now an unattractive 50-year-old Eastwick housewife who still seems to be searching for something she didn’t get from her mother — what? Attention, as someone suggests? Rules to live by?
Updike’s powers, like those of his witches, unfortunately seem to have dimmed in this return to his old stomping ground. The Widows of Eastwick is an intelligent and rewarding book, like almost everything he produces, but it retains only mild vestiges of the truly magical sheen of the first volume, which especially in its virtuosic first 50 pages or so saw the author at the very top of his game, a far greater magus than the witches’ nemesis, Darryl Van Horne. Updike can still weave spells with words and images, but he does so infrequently in The Widows of Eastwick, which assumes a markedly crepuscular tone as the witches approach “the engulfing indifference that readies us for death.” Jane, Alexandra, and Sukie are fading out, and no new witches have appeared in Eastwick to take their place. Perhaps this is because modern women don’t need witchcraft: Eastwick’s family doctor and Unitarian minister are now women, after all, and everywhere it seems that “women were at last inheriting the world, leaving men to sink ever deeper in their fantasies of violence and domination.” As I reader I don’t really believe this — and neither, I imagine, does Updike, who throughout his long career has done as much to celebrate maleness and the male point of view as any writer in American history.